Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Village of the German

Rachel and Malrich Schiller, the sons of a German father and an Algerian mother, are two brothers that are so different that it is hard to imagine that they come from the same family.

The two immigrant boys, growing up in France without their parents who stay in their home village in Algeria, are agewise just a few years apart but take a path in life that is completely different from each other.

There is Rachel, the older one, who is very serious about his education and studies and who embarks on a successful professional career that enables him to lead the life of a well-to-do middle class French citizen. His French wife makes the picture of a successful assimilation complete, even when the mother-in-law of Rachel, a sympathizer of the racist Front National that seems to become the dominant political party in France, doesn’t really accept this Arab – and even worse: German! –  husband of her daughter as a member of the family.

And there is Malrich, who came a few years later to France and who grew up in not so favorable conditions. His world is the banlieue, the soulless ring of suburbs that seem to be designed for the immigrants and socially weaker classes. A world without much chances for a regular job, but a world with criminal gangs and a growing number of violent incidents on the streets. (Mathieu Kassovitz’ movie La Haine comes to mind.) Malrich may be a bigmouth sometimes, but he is a genuinely sympathetic young man who sees very clearly what is going on around him. Especially the growing presence of the “bearded” in the banlieue, and the failure of the state authorities to deal with them, is noted very clearly by Malrich.

Malrich finally drops out of school most of the time  and is hanging out with other young lads from his neighborhood who share the feeling of belonging to a lost generation without perspective and without future. His meetings with his older brother who reminds him of the importance of being disciplined and of the necessity to finish his education are a nuisance, and the rare visits of his mother are a sad and mostly speechless encounter every time. Malrich and his mother literally have no common language anymore. His Berber mother doesn’t speak French and Malrich has forgotten almost all his childhood Arabic.

One day, the brothers receive devastating news from their home village. There has been an attack by terrorists – probably in one way or the other under the involvement of the Algerian State Security – on their village, and their parents are among the many victims of this gruesome act.

For Rachel it becomes soon an obsession to find out more about this attack and the reason why it happened. There are many unresolved questions for Rachel, one of them is the German origin of his father, who was a respected person and hero of the Algerian independence fight against the French, since he trained Algerian military that was fighting the French forces. After the independence, their father settled in a remote village, married a local woman and later sent his two sons to France. But who his father, a somewhat detached figure, really was, where he came from and what he did before coming to Algeria, Rachel and Malrich have no idea.

For Rachel this quest for the truth is getting more and more obsessive, an obsession that destroys in the end everything in his well-organized life. But it is surprisingly Malrich who finally visits the “village of the German” (the original title of the book) and learns to accept the terrible truth about his father.

This novel is a very touching reflection on guilt and personal responsibility. The Algerian author Boualem Sansal is advocating personal freedom in a world that is threatened by inhumane ideologies. An Unfinished Business (in the US published as The German Mujahid) is an admirable book with characters that no reader will easily forget. Despite it’s rather depressing subject, Sansal leaves the reader with a sign of hope: Malrich has grown up fast as a result of the circumstances, and it is a good guess that he will be able to come to terms with the haunting past and with the future as well.


Boualem Sansal: An Unfinished Business, transl. Frank Wynne, Bloomsbury, 2012

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Holy War – Holy Profit

The attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi in September 2013, the recent kidnapping of a large number of girls in Nigeria by the terror group Boko Haram, the mysterious assault on the In Amenas oil field in the Algerian Sahara, the destruction of the ancient culture of Timbuktu, or the disastrous bomb explosion just a few days ago in Mogadischu: terror business in Africa is booming. And to speak of business in this context seems to be completely justified, after you have read the new book of the journalist Marc Engelhardt “Heiliger Krieg – Heiliger Profit” (Holy War, Holy Profit).

Engelhardt is embarking on a journey that leads the reader from Somalia to Sudan, Tchad, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, and the Central African Republic. In all these countries armed groups are active that spread terror and destruction over this huge and strategically important region. The Sahara desert is not only having vast oil and gas resources, but also huge deposits of gold, diamonds, and uranium. These resources are particularly interesting for the big strategic players in the region: the US, France, and since a couple of years also China.

It is remarkable that the groups described by Engelhardt are so small and mobile. That al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine, Mujao, Boko Haram, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) by Joseph Kony, or the Somali al-Shabaab militia are able to control huge territories with such a small number of fighters (the biggest of these groups have still not more than estimated 5000 “soldiers”) seems to be surprising at first sight. But the almost complete absence of a functioning state in their operating zone, together with the notorious extreme brutality of these groups – together with their ability to find and exploit very efficiently sources of funding such as piracy, kidnapping, contract killing, cigarette, charcoal or sugar smuggling, drug trafficking, human trafficking, or extortion make their success much less surprising.

All groups mentioned by Engelhardt use a very strong religious rhetoric and propaganda, some “Islamic”, some “Christian”. They say that they aim at a true caliphate, for the reign of “true” Islam – or of the Bible and the Ten Commandments, like the ultra-brutal LKA.

But let us not be deceived here, says Engelhardt. This is almost exclusively rhetoric, and it is to a certain degree useful for these groups (the “Islamistic” groups receive at least partly logistic support and training by al-Qaeda). But their almost exclusive aim is to collect money and more money. And they do it exclusively with means that are strongly opposed to the principles of those religions they pretend to promote.

Beside a detailed description of the historic and political background of the terror organizations, a big part of Engelhardt’s book is dealing with the business activities of these groups. In Somalia for example, it is beside the recently decreasing piracy industry, the smuggling of charcoal for the export markets and of sugar for the local market, that provides a nice profit to the gangster-terrorists. But even these enormous profits or the big money that is made from cigarette smuggling through the Sahara desert, are dwarfed against the exorbitant profits from cocaine smuggling. The drug for the European market (the demand is growing strongly) is arriving in Central Africa on board of old airplanes run by a dubious airline, which is locally known as “Air Cocaine”. The value of the cargo of one such flight might easily be at 7-800 million Euros – the last published state budget of Somalia was at about 150 million Euro. It is obvious that these profits (the smugglers receive usually about 10% of the value of the cargo) are extremely attractive to the criminal gangs that operate in the vast Sahara desert.

It is worth noting that beside the external powers already mentioned above, also Algeria is one of the key players in the dealing with this new terrorist challenge. Before 9/11, the Algerian regime was an outcast for most countries of the world, including the US administration. This changed dramatically in 2002, when the Bush administration was looking for new allies in the global fight against terror. Suddenly, the former outcast became a close friend, especially since also the Algerian junta showed a big interest in better relations with the US. The terror of an allegedly Islamistic group in Algeria was getting worse and worse. For the Algerian government this terror came just at the right moment – and strangely enough almost all terror attacks happened in the stronghold areas of the Algerian Islamists, a fact that was remarked by several analysts from the very beginning. Why should the Islamists bomb their own supporters? Engelhardt, like most experts in the region, assumes and provides a lot of evidence for it, that these so-called Islamistic groups were indeed part of the Algerian State Security Service. Also some other strange coincidences during several kidnappings of tourists, or the recent oilfield attack are only explicable by – at least – a kind of collusion between those groups who commit these terror acts and the Algerian State Security. A strong reason for that may be to keep the potential threat from revolting Tuareg tribes at bay.

Also the role of France in these conflicts is highlighted. France considers this region of former colonies still as a kind of natural influence zone, and the big hunger for uranium seems to be an additional strong motivation for the present President to break his previous promise to stop interfering militarily in the region. Additionally, many French companies (like Total) have huge business interests in the region, and as a result of this melange, France is very much willing to support even doubtful regimes with a devastating human rights record, as long as they guarantee that French business interests will not be touched.

What can be done against the rather depressing rise of gangster-terrorism in the region? Many experts, especially in the US, seem to think that this is a primarily military challenge. More efficient use of military technology, more drone killings in order to eliminate the truly “bad guys”, seems to be the main concept even of the administration of Nobel Peace Prize Winner President Obama.

But it is obvious that the military option is not sufficient to eradicate the terror in Africa. As long as the conditions are like they are now in this part of the world, even a massive unleashing of deadly weapons on terrorists (and very frequently innocent bystanders) will not decrease the problem. There will be always a fresh supply of fighters that have nothing to lose (or that are forced to be part of these groups, like the countless children soldiers), as long as there are not fundamental changes happening in these countries.

Engelhardt (and with him the reviewer) believes that a successful fight against terrorism in Africa needs mainly two things: economic development and institution building in these countries, in order to create stronger states, and also a drying-up of the economic sources of income of the terrorists (such as an efficient disruption of their money transfer systems).

News on this topic are regularly published on Engelhardt’s website:

A translation of this very instructive book into English is highly recommended.


Marc Engelhardt: Heiliger Krieg – Heiliger Profit, Ch. Links Verlag, Berlin 2014

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Utopia, resurrected

Alexandria, the second biggest Egyptian city, has been for most of its history a truly cosmopolitan Mediterranean city. From the time of its foundation by Alexander the Great until the Suez crisis Alexandria housed not only a big Greek community, but also people from all possible different ethnic, national and religious background. When you would walk on the streets of Alexandria one hundred years ago, you would probably hear people on the streets talking to each other in about a dozen different languages.

Alexandria was not paradise, but it was a place where during most of its history, its inhabitants – no matter what their origin was – had learned to get along with each other. (For those who are interested in the history of Alexandria and the other multi-ethnic cities of the Mediterranean Beirut, Smyrna and Saloniki, I would like to recommend a book by the British historian Philip Mansel: Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean, London 2010)

It is therefore easy to understand that Alexandria was and still is a place that inspired the imagination of many writers. The Greek poet Constantin Cavafy spent most of his rather uneventful life in this city and created his poetry here. E.M. Forster devoted two of his works to the city (Alexandria: A History and a Guide and Pharos and Pharillon). His friend Lawrence Durrell used Alexandria as a backdrop of his Alexandria Quartet, a series of four novels. Also several Egyptian (Arabic) authors have made Alexandria the location of some of their most important works, e.g. Naguib Mahfouz’ novel Miramar.

And there is of course a rich autobiographic literature and memoirs of people who have lived in Alexandria, such as the beautiful Out of Egypt, by Andre Aciman, or George Moustaki’s Les Filles de la mémoire (Moustaki’s father owned an antiquarian bookstore in Alexandria).

The collection of short stories Farewell to Alexandria, by Harry E. Tzalas fits into this context. Tzalas, born and educated in Alexandria, emigrated to Brazil in 1956 before settling in Greece where he became the founder and president of the Hellenic Institute for Ancient and Medieval Alexandrian Studies in Athens, a position that brought him frequently back to the city of his youth.

The eleven short stories, written between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, explore the Alexandria of the late 1930s, through WWII, the 1952 revolution and the Suez crisis that ended with the almost complete dispersal of the non-Arabic population of Alexandria.

The characters in Tzala’s stories are taken mainly from his childhood and youth. They come from different social milieus and different religions and are described with great warmth, sensitivity and perception.

There is for example Antoun, a poor Lebanese shoemaker, a simple but good man. One day, a relative of Antoun dies in Beirut, and the hero of the story inherits a modest amount of money. Now the quiet life of work and weekend fishing excursions of Antoun comes to a halt for some time. Should he start his own business now that he has the opportunity and the funds to do so? Should he invest the money somewhere else? What to do with this sudden modest wealth? Antoun doesn’t sleep well for a while until he comes to the probably wise decision to spend the money for the fulfillment of a long existing secret wish: he always wanted a watch! Once he makes up his mind, he goes ahead without further hesitation – he buys watches for all family members and a little radio. And leads his life from that moment on just as if nothing has happened. Not a very exciting or wealthy life, but probably a quite happy one. At least he rose to the status of a watch owner, and that’s probably as far as the ambition of Antoun would lead him. The story ends with a short afterword:

The years passed. I left Alexandria. Osta Antoun died. I got the news when I met an old acquaintance who used to go fishing with us on Sundays. “Antoun passed on,” he said. “May God have mercy on his soul. He was a good man. It was his heart, you know. He was buried holding his watch tightly in his hands.”

Many of the characters in Tzalas’ stories are waiting for something to happen, like the Armenian family in The little Armenian girl that is waiting for the ship to bring them home. But frequently, the expected is not happening, or when it comes finally, something important has changed in the meantime. Life is taking its own course and we are usually not the masters of our destinies.

Some of the stories are particularly moving because they show the fate of families that are stranded in a hostile surrounding during WWII. The front line was not very far away from Alexandria, and the authorities (and some neighbors) were not particularly friendly to the number of Italian or German families that resided in Alexandria. That some of them showed open support and sympathy with the enemy didn’t exactly help to make their lives easier. Frau Grete and Sidi Bishr, October 1942 deals with this aspect, but the stories are never dry history lessons. They always put the spot light on some very interesting and credible characters.

Tzalas’ book breathes a certain melancholy. Because it describes a lost Utopia. But it is thanks to stories like the one’s that Tzalas is telling us, that this Utopia is kept alive at least in our memories:

Alexandria is resurrected for all those who called her Utopia, who have loved her and lost her; the Alexandria of children and poets. (from: Alexandria ad Aegyptum)

The book is illustrated by Anna Boghiguian, an Armenian-Egyptian artist. The illustrations are very evocative and add to the charm of this beautiful collection of stories.


Harry E. Tzalas: Farewell to Alexandria, transl. Susan E. Mantouvalou, illustrated by Anna Boghiguian, The American University of Cairo Press, Cairo, 2004

Philip Mansel: Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean (London, John Murray, 2010) 

E.M. Forster: Alexandria: A History and Guide / Pharos and Pharillon, Andre Deutsch, 2004

Lawrence Durrell: The Alexandria Quartet, Faber and Faber 2012

C P Cavafy: Complete Poems, transl. Daniel Mendelsohn, Harper Press, 2013

Georges Moustaki: Les Filles de la mémoire, Editions Calmann-Levy, 1989

Andre Aciman: Out of Egypt: a memoir, I B Tauris, 2006 

Naguib Mahfouz: Miramar, transl. Fatma Moussa Mahmoud, The American University of Cairo Press, Cairo, 1998

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


The Making of a Bestseller


16-year old Mifti, the hero of the novel “Axolotl Roadkill” by Helene Hegemann, is a kind of female Holden Caulfield transferred in time and space to the early 21st century techno clubs of Berlin.

The book was a minor sensation when it came out in Germany in 2010, and the 17-old wunderkind author became the darling of a certain part of the literary feuilleton and media.

I read the book soon after it was published in Germany and was taken aback. What was hyped by some reviewers as the work of a new literary genius turned out to be 200-odd pages of revolting and not very well written fuck-and-vomit prose, mixed with half-digested (and quarter-understood) theory jargon, and the usual name-, label- and location-dropping that is supposed to excite a certain category of Berlin hipsters, but that is simply a sign for an inflated ego of the “author” (Regarding the “authorship” of this book see below). Rarely in my life was I bored more as when I was forcing myself through this book.

It turned out that a very big part of this so-called novel was plagiarized (without mentioning sources) from a variety of books and other texts. Only in later editions, the publisher mentioned all(?) sources. But “theft remains theft”, as the author Helmut Krausser remarked in this context, and to argue that everybody is doing it nowadays shows only a lack of reflection and hints at lustful self-deception.

A well-connected father (Herr Hegemann is a famous dramaturg in Berlin) who can pull a few strings in the publishing and media scene, a publishing house (Ullstein) that was a bit too eager to produce a new literary wunderkind, reviewers that in all seriousness praised the “authenticity” of the plagiarized novel and that are obviously blind when the author fulfills their two main quality criteria (“young and female”), and a girl that knew how to put together a novel mainly with the copy-and-paste function of her laptop – these are the ingredients of this case, the initial big success and the scandal that was following.

What Hegemann and her supporters seem not to understand until today is that there is a difference between intertextuality and plagiarism. That she (and even a reviewer in the “Guardian”) claims until today that she “took” just a few lines from other authors is appalling. I remember that in an article of the Frankfurter Allgemeine it was proved in detail that a very big part of the book is a mechanical copy of texts written by people other than Fräulein H.

Sorry when I sound a bit misogynic this time. But I found it extremely annoying that this rag of a book took so much attention from other much more worthy works of contemporary literature (also by female authors).

“Axolotl Roadkill” is interesting as a media phenomenon but not as a novel. Zero out of five stars. ‘Nuff said.


Helene Hegemann: Axolotl Roadkill, transl. by Katy Derbyshire, Constable & Robinson 2012

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


The Simple Art of Poetry

I admit it: I have a preference for poems written in a simple, almost sparse language. And that say many things with comparatively few words.

Günter Eich’s Inventur (Inventory) was one of the first examples of this kind of poetry I came across when I was very young.


Dies ist meine Mütze,
dies ist mein Mantel,
hier mein Rasierzeug
im Beutel aus Leinen. 

Mein Teller, mein Becher,
ich hab in das Weißblech
den Namen geritzt. 

Geritzt hier mit diesem
kostbaren Nagel,
den vor begehrlichen
Augen ich berge. 

Im Brotbeutel sind
ein Paar wollene Socken
und einiges, was ich
niemand verrate, 

so dient es als Kissen
nachts meinem Kopf.
Die Pappe hier liegt
zwischen mir und der Erde.

Die Bleistiftmine
lieb ich am meisten:
Tags schreibt sie mir Verse,
die nachts ich erdacht. 

Dies ist mein Notizbuch,
dies meine Zeltbahn,
dies ist mein Handtuch,
dies ist mein Zwirn. 


This is my cap,  
this is my overcoat,  
here is my shave kit  
in its linen pouch.  

Some field rations:  
my dish, my tumbler,  
here in the tin-plate  
I’ve scratched my name.   

Scratched it here with this  
precious nail  
I keep concealed  
from coveting eyes.   

In the bread bag I have  
a pair of wool socks  
and a few things that I  
discuss with no one,  

and these form a pillow  
for my head at night.  
Some cardboard lies  
between me and the ground.   

The pencil’s the thing  
I love the most:  
By day it writes verses  
I make up at night.   

This is my notebook,  
this my rain gear,  
this is my towel,  
this is my twine. 

(Translated by Joshua Mehigan)

Later I discovered many other interesting and beautiful examples of this genre. There are of course too many to quote them all, so I will just present a very few examples here:

Open House

My secrets cry aloud.
I have no need for tongue.
My heart keeps open house,
My doors are widely swung.
An epic of the eyes
My love, with no disguise. 

(Theodore Huebner Roethke a distant relative)

Another one:

Was ich habe, will ich nicht verlieren, aber
wo ich bin, will ich nicht bleiben, aber
die ich liebe, will ich nicht verlassen, aber
die ich kenne, will ich nicht mehr sehen, aber
wo ich lebe, da will ich nicht sterben, aber
wo ich sterbe, da will ich nicht hin:
Bleiben will ich, wo ich nie gewesen bin.

What I have, I don’t want to lose, but
where I am, I don’t want to stay, but
the one I love, I don’t want to leave, but
the ones I know, I don’t want to see again, but
where I live, I don’t want to die, but
where I’ll die, I don’t want to go:
I want to stay where I have never been. 

(Thomas Brasch, translated by Thomas Hübner) 

The following poem is already a kind of modern classic:

Was es ist
 Es ist Unsinn
sagt die Vernunft
Es ist was es ist
sagt die Liebe
Es ist Unglück
sagt die Berechnung
Es ist nichts als Schmerz
sagt die Angst
Es ist aussichtslos
sagt die Einsicht
Es ist was es ist
sagt die Liebe
Es ist lächerlich
sagt der Stolz
Es ist leichtsinnig
sagt die Vorsicht
Es ist unmöglich
sagt die Erfahrung
Es ist was es ist
sagt die Liebe
What it is
It is nonsense
says reason
It is what it is
says love
It is misfortune
says calculation
It is nothing but pain
says fear
It is hopeless
says insight
It is what it is
says love
It is laughable
says pride
It is frivolous
says caution
It is impossible
says experience
It is what it is
says love 

(Erich Fried, translated by Gwilym Williams) 

 And here is a quite famous example:

This is Just to Say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold  

(William Carlos Williams) 

The shortest possible form of a poem is of course the haiku. Therefore here some examples from the great master of the haiku genre, Matsuo Basho:

Waking in the night;
The lamp is low,
The oil freezing.
 It has rained enough
To turn the stubble on the field

 Winter rain
Falls on the cow-shed
A cock crows.

 The leeks
Newly washed white,-
How cold it is!

 The sea darkens;
The voices of the wild ducks
Are faintly white.

Ill on a journey;
My dreams wander
Over a withered moor. 

(translated by Robert Hass)

These are examples by well-known or even famous authors. But frequently lesser-known (but equally gifted) poets produce works that deserve to be noted, read, distributed and recommended. And I don’t want to conclude this short choice of poems without giving the floor to a poet that is probably unknown to most of you. I discovered this author only recently, after a close friend presented me a copy of his newest collection of poetry. I am talking about the Bulgarian poet Vladislav Hristov (born 1976), and his book Fi (Фи). (Thank you, Eli! And thank you, Vladislav Hristov, for the dedication in my copy!).

Hristov is undoubtedly one of the best haiku poets of our times: 

изгонената котка
само тя
видя звездопада
cat shooed away
only she saw
the meteor shower 

(Translated by Maya Lyubenova)

Also in his new collection the tone is laconic, sparse, but always evocative:

дясната ръка
държи книгата
ръката на любимия
всяка нова страница
е раздяла
the right hand
holds the book
the left
the hand of the beloved
each new page
is shared

снимането на ангел
е много лесно:
просто кажи обичам те
преди да натиснеш копчето
photographing an angel
is very simple:
just say I love you
before you press the button

сънувах тарковски
седнал на пода
в детската ви стая
андрюша какво правиш тук
той мълчи
вцепених се от ужас:
ами ако ме попита
I dreamt Tarkovsky
sat on the floor
in your children’s room
andryusha what are you doing here
he was silent
frozen in horror:
what if you asked me
the same 

(Translations by Thomas Hübner)

Vladislav Hristov is an extraordinarily versatile and talented poet/photographer/artist. He writes also interesting short prose, and it would be nice to see more of his works translated and published in other languages.

Ergo Books, his Bulgarian publisher, is to be congratulated for the efforts they are undertaking to promote contemporary Bulgarian poetry. Beside from Vladislav Hristov, they publish also the poetry of Jana Punkina, Miroslav Hristov, Jordanka Beleva, Dimana Ivanova, Palmi Ranchev, Maria Vasileva, Margarit Zhekov, Kamen Kostov, and Ivaylo Ivanov, amongst others.


 Vladislav Hristov: Fi, Ergo Books, Sofia 2013 (in Bulgarian language)


Günter Eich: Abgelegene Gehöfte. Schauer, Frankfurt am Main, 1948 (transl.: Poetry, Apr2009, Vol. 194, Issue 1, p37)

Theodore Roethke: Open House. Knopf, New York, 1941

Thomas Brasch: Die nennen das Schrei. Gesammelte Gedichte. Suhrkamp, Berlin, 2013

Erich Fried: Es ist was es ist. Wagenbach, Berlin 1983 (transl.:

William Carlos Williams: The Collected Poems, Volume I, 1909-1939. New Directions, New York, 1991

Matsuo Basho: Poems, e-book 2004 (


© Thomas Hübner and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

“I would prefer not to”

“That Herman Melville has gone ‘clean daft’, is very much to be feared; certainly, he has given us a very mad book…The sooner this author is put in ward the better. If trusted with himself, at all events give him no further trust in pen and ink, till the present fit has worn off. He will grievously hurt himself else – or his very amiable publishers.”

This grotesque reaction of a reviewer of a new work of Herman Melville, the author of  “Bartleby the Scrivener”, shows that something went indeed wrong with Melville. But he didn’t go mad – he did something even more unforgivable: he disappointed the expectations of his readers!

After his adventurous youth as a sailor and living on Pacific islands with cannibals, he became famous with adventure novels like Typee and Omoo. But instead of staying in this line of work and becoming a bestselling author, he delivered Moby Dick, an already very difficult to swallow piece of literature, too dark and too philosophical for the biggest part of the 19th century audience. And as if this was not already enough, he came up finally with one of the strangest literary heroes of all times: Bartleby.

What hasn’t been written about this story! Especially since the 1920s, when psychoanalysis and the publication of Franz Kafka’s (and Robert Walser’s with its countless office clerks) works lead to a Melville renaissance,

Melville’s oeuvre and especially Bartleby has been interpreted again and again – Bartleby, the psycho-pathological case study; Bartleby as a criticism of Thoreau’s flight from civilization; Bartleby as a self-portrait of Melville (who had to work as a customs officer after the publication of this story due to his falling out with the reading public of his time); Bartleby as a parable concerning the life of the artist in a world dominated by business interests (the story takes place mainly at Wall Street); Bartleby as a predecessor of Camus and existentialist philosophy; Bartleby as a modern Hiob or even Jesus (the story is full of biblical references). – And this is just a small choice of possible interpretations!

But this is not my main point here – Bartleby is one of the few cases in literature that is open to such a big variety of possible interpretations. So read it – in case you haven’t done it so far. Or re-read it again: it is just 60 pages, and at least for me one of the most unforgettable literary works ever.

Do not expect a longer review here:  “I would rather prefer not to”, as Bartleby used to say…Just read it!

Herman Melville: Bartleby the Scrivener, Hesperus Press (and many other editions)


© Thomas Hübner and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Colour of September

Fergus Steyn is a bit bored after his retirement. After a professionally successful but obviously quite lonely private life, he is indulging in his childhood memories especially since he was invited as a conference speaker. The conference is on the experience of those Dutch who were repatriated from the former Dutch East Indies after WWII and Fergus Steyn is supposed to deliver a speech and a conference paper on that occasion.

After an early childhood in a caring middle-class family in Batavia (now Jakarta), young Fergus is spending a hard time after the invasion of the East Indies by Japanese troops. Dutch women and children are interned in a camp near Bandung, whereas the men – among them also Fergus’ father – are brought to a slave labor camp in Burma. But Fergus is lucky: his family is surviving the hardships of war and internment and is being repatriated in 1946. But the journey to the Netherlands proves to be much more difficult as the Steyns expected: the women and children are first brought to Ceylon before they are reunited with their husbands and fathers and they have to pass a quite long period on this tropical island before they can proceed with their journey home.

During the ship passage and the time in Kandy, Ceylon, young Fergus (called “Taffy”) gets acquainted with other children with a similar background. There is the ever-hungry Bollie and his big brother Hermann, Filip and his sister Flortje, the Indo boy Jop called “Djangkrik”, and the charismatic girl Pinkie who forms a kind of gang with a secret language and code of this odd group of kids in puberty. The three months in the jungle camp of Kandy are like a paradise for the children: they get acquainted with strange animals and people, they watch films almost on a daily basis in the outdoor cinema, they make friends with gurkha soldiers, while their mothers drink tea and make small talk and try to speed up their reunion with the husbands who are stranded somewhere in Thailand and waiting for a transport to bring the families back to Holland.

Fergus develops an innocent friendship with Pinkie but on one occasion Pinkie is touching Fergus’ leg and this touch is the beginning of a new feeling. Only later, after Fergus has departed from Kandy (and Pinkie) and has returned home with his family, he begins to understand that he loved Pinkie. The invitation to the conference is bringing this lifelong feeling of having missed an opportunity, of not having lived a love that he never experienced again, back to the retired Fergus Steyn. Under the pretext to prepare the conference speech he is visiting two of his childhood friends from Kandy, a slightly disappointing experience. But at least he gets the address of Pinkie, now an old lady living in London with her husband. Finally Fergus is preparing to meet his first love so many years later…

Carel Jan Schneider (1932-2011), the author of “Kandy” was publishing his books under the pseudonym F. Springer. Maybe he thought that for a diplomat – he held various positions in the diplomatic service including that of the last Dutch Ambassador in East Berlin – it is not proper to publish novels and stories, maybe he just wanted to avoid gossip about his mostly autobiographical works. And Fergus Steyn seems to be really the alter ego of its author. “Kandy” is a melancholic book and like his acclaimed novel “Bougainville” has an unlived love as a central topic. The “Forever and ever!”, the oath of the youth gang that was once created by Pinkie, is being replaced by a “Too late!” at the end of the book. What happens in between is told by F. Springer with delicacy and in an elegant style.

F. Springer is an author that is still to be discovered in the English-speaking world, although most of his books are translated in German and “Bougainville” also in French. As far as I know, none of his works is up to now being translated into English. Publishers are kindly invited to change this: they will render readers a valuable service. F. Springer was for very good reasons compared with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Graham Greene.


F. Springer: Kandy, Querido 1998; Die Farbe des September, Suhrkamp 2000 (transl. Helga van Beuningen)

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.