Monthly Archives: November 2014

DSM-5 or: “Progress” in psychiatry

DSM-5 is the acronym of the 2013 update to the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) classification and diagnostic tool. The full title is Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.

In the United States the DSM serves as a universal authority for psychiatric diagnosis. Treatment recommendations, as well as payment by health care providers, are often determined by DSM classifications, so the appearance of a new version has significant practical importance. DSM-5 is also an important reference tool in many other countries.

I am neither an expert in this discipline, nor did I – fortunately – have a history as a patient in that field. But I find some of the content of DSM-5 deeply disturbing.

Grief is according to my understanding a normal reaction to the loss of a close person. And it is difficult to imagine that there is someone out there who thinks that grief is something pathological. It is very individual how and how long we grieve. But DSM-5 says: if you lost your partner, child, parent, or another person close to you and you mourn for longer than two weeks(!), you are suffering from a pathological disorder that requires treatment.

DSM-4, the predecessor of DSM-5 admitted in 2000 still a two months’ mourning period after the loss of a close person as “normal”, DSM-3 in 1980 even a one year mourning period as “normal”.

And let me guess – DSM-6 will probably consider a mourning period longer than two days as a pathological disorder. I suppose that is called “progress”. (It is indeed – but only for the balance sheets of the pharmaceutical industry.)

I hope I will never fall in the hands of a psychiatrist who is working on the basis of DSM-5.

“Progress celebrates victories over nature. Progress makes purses of human skin….Nature can rely on progress; it will avenge it for the outrage it has perpetrated on it.” (Karl Kraus)

 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 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 mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Ostende. 1936, Summer of friendship

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This review is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

The Belgian kings Leopold I and Leopold II liked to spend their summer holidays in the seaside town of Ostende, a place which was famous then and now for its long sandy beaches. What followed in the late 19th and early 20th century was a construction boom: the small harbor town developed into an opulent summer holiday location for the wealthy bourgeoisie and the upper echelons of society. Those who visit Ostende today will realize that a lot of the splendour of those days has gone and many of the gorgeous buildings of that time were destroyed either by the bombings of WWII or by the similarly devastating “modernization” frenzy in the 1950s and 1960s.

But in 1936, the old Ostende was still very much alive. Those who could afford it were packing their things and spending a few weeks here. Among them were also a group of German-language writers. They enjoy the sun, the swimming, the drinks, the company, and their talks about literature. But all of them either lost their homes, or had to prepare for losing it in the near future. They had mostly also lost their by far biggest publication market, Germany, and with it also the biggest part of their income. The small new book by Volker Weidermann, Ostende. 1936 – Sommer der Freundschaft (published this year and not yet translated) describes this summer, the strange atmosphere between holiday mood and depression that most of the writers felt. And it shows also the difficulties to be a writer in exile, and what happened to the friends that met in Ostende during that summer.

I was amazed to read who was in Ostende at exactly the same time – it reads like a part of the Who is who of German literature of that period: Stefan Zweig (with his secretary and lover Lotte Altmann); Joseph Roth; Irmgard Keun; Ernst Toller with his wife, the actress Christiane Grautoff; Egon Erwin Kisch, the famous “Raging Reporter from Prague” with his wife; Hermann Kesten; Arthur Koestler; also Willi Münzenberg, the “Red Press Czar” and founder of one of the biggest media empires of the world was there with his wife and some aides, among them the shady Otto Katz, one of the most notorious GPU agents, also known as Andre Simone.

Weidermann focuses the book mainly on the friendship between Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth. Zweig, one of the few German-language writers that was not dependent from the German market because his books were popular almost all over the world, was in a similarly privileged position like Thomas Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, or Erich Maria Remarque: they lived in very comfortable conditions even in exile, but all of them used their wealth and contacts to support the big number of poor colleagues financially or with contacts with publishers. In later years their assistance in getting affidavits and visas was crucial to get many writers out of Europa after the outbreak of the war (Anna Seghers’ Transit gives a haunting description of the emigrants in Marseille).

Joseph Roth was on the other side of the social pyramid of writers: the once well-paid journalist and author had not been very lucky. He was not the kind of person to save money for bad times to come and spent what he earned with full hands, living a life in the most expensive European hotels in the late 1920s and early 1930s. A mental illness of his wife who had to be admitted to an asylum (she was later killed by the Nazis in the framework of the infamous T4 program), his growing problems with alcohol – the book describes Zweig’s caring efforts to feed his friend at least one time or another – and his complete loss of the German and Austrian book market; there was hardly a disaster that didn’t strike Roth in those years. Stefan Zweig proved to be a loyal friend who helped Roth not only financially; he tried to make Roth quit or at least reduce his booze addiction; he discussed manuscripts with him and reminded him to work more slowly and diligently; and he introduced him to his other friends and colleagues in Ostende. Among them was a young and attractive “Aryan” female writer from Germany: Irmgard Keun.

Keun, already an accomplished writer in the early 30s, was caught in an unhappy marriage in Germany from which she ran away, and she had also difficulties to publish in Germany. Her books were banned and the works she wrote during her time in Belgium (for example After Midnight, her probably best book) and on travels would be published in German exile publishing houses. When she met Roth, it was obviously a coup de foudre from both sides. They started a relationship almost immediately after their first meeting, much to the surprise of the other emigrants who couldn’t understand what this attractive woman drew to the hopeless drunkard in tattered clothes. Weidermann describes how they got “to work”: they used to go to the same small bar every day, sit on separate tables with their small typewriters (Keun loved the sun, Roth couldn’t stand it) and ordered some liquor. Or more correctly: a lot of liquor. Yes, also Keun was an alcoholic. But for both of them, it seemed to have been an extremely productive time and both wrote excellent works during their time together.

Also for Zweig the times were not easy. But his were more his private problems and sorrows, not so much the political situation. His marriage with Friederike had failed, his home in Austria was soon to be sold to settle the financial issues following the divorce, and he had also sold his extraordinary collection of autographs. But his relationship with a young woman, Lotte Altmann, whom he hired as an assistant and secretary and who later became his mistress and after the divorce his second wife, also set new energies free in Zweig. He wanted to use the fresh energy he felt to do some serious work on some of his book projects in Ostende and also to think about where to settle in the future. It was also a good opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues, especially with Joseph Roth with whom he entertained a close friendship.

For Zweig it was not the first time he came to Ostende. He had spent the summer 1914, the days before the outbreak of WWI in Ostende to meet his idol Emile Verhaeren. So overwhelmed was the young Zweig by the meeting with his master in 1914 that he didn’t realize at all that the world was preparing for war and that the world he loved would be doomed. (Verhaeren turned soon after the outbreak of the war into one of the most radical chauvinists, a major disappointment for Zweig)

What drew Zweig to Roth, and vice versa? For Zweig, Roth represented the Ostjudentum, the world of the Jews from the periphery of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a world about which Zweig knew very little but to which he felt in a strange way attracted. And that Roth, despite his insane alcoholism and his financial dependency from Zweig, was so loyal and honest was for Zweig also very attractive. Roth knew no friendship, no superficial friendliness when it came to questions of literature. When he smelled one wrong expression, one superficial adjective, a weak plot, or something else that his unfailing instinct discovered, he would not hide it and let his friend know. Also vice versa, Roth accepted the professional advice of Zweig on many occasions. Due to the extreme difference in their living conditions one could have expected Roth to be a sycophant at least at times, but it seems that this was never the case. Theirs is a dialogue eye to eye when it came to matters of importance, i.e. to literature.

Weidermann’s book is excellently written. Not only writes he almost like an experienced novelist who arranges his material in an interesting way. He also succeeds in making the motives of his heroes understandable to the reader. And he adds interesting details that you can hardly read in any other book about the German exile – such as the unintentional act of disloyalty Zweig commits when he writes to his American publisher that Roth is suffering from being over-productive (writing too much in a short time) with the result that his exile books are much weaker than the previous one’s (I would disagree with Zweig here). As a result, the American publisher writes Roth that he is cancelling his author’s contract, a financial catastrophe for Roth who lives his last years mainly from Stefan Zweig’s financial support.

Although the other authors are not so much in the centre of the book, they play an important role too and Weidermann shows a great talent to integrate their fates almost effortlessly in his small masterpiece. Ernst Toller, the expressionist poet and dramatist, and his beautiful actress wife add a lot of flair to the weeks in Ostende – but Toller has always a rope with a noose in his suitcase; he suffers from extreme bouts of depression and the reader knows that he will sooner or later use the rope to hang himself. (When it finally happened a few years later, Roth collapsed when he heard the news and died shortly thereafter) Also the Münzenberg/Katz story made me shiver, knowing what later happened; and of course the end of the two main protagonists, so sad and unnecessary, victims of a time that was so opposed to the human values they represented in everything they did and wrote.

I hope for a swift translation of this wonderful book of Volker Weidermann. (The translation rights for the English-speaking edition are already sold to Pantheon/Knopf.) It will be a must for all Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth aficionados, and for all friends of literature in general. And if you visit Ostende, take this book with you. And don’t miss the house of the painter James Ensor. It plays a small but important role in this book too and is different from any other house you will ever visit.

Ostende

Volker Weidermann: Ostende. 1936, Sommer der Freundschaft, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Köln 2014

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 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 mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

“For good mood”

Most of you know what a fortune cookie is – a cookie with a fortune inside, i.e. a message that predicts a hopefully bright future or at least a positive aspect of the future. “You will make a new friend”, “A surprising journey is waiting for you”, “A lottery win”. or “You will meet the love of your life”, or a similarly harmless message, not to be taken seriously.

As far as I know, this trend comes originally from China and has spread all over the world now. As it happens with such trends, some changes and adaptations have occurred in some parts of the world.

One of these changes is that the fortune can be also a quote by a famous person, an aphorism – preferably funny or philosophical, something that makes you think or smile. Something that enhances your good mood.

The other change that can be observed in many places is that the fortune comes without the cookie. You order a coffee, and it comes with a rolled fortune message.

As a curious person, I usually unfold these fortune messages. Not because I believe in the truth of these fortunes, but because they can tell you sometimes something about the mentality or the culture of the place.

During my last visit in Sofia, I had a coffee with a friend. And – it came with a fortune message:

 

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The text reads as follows:

“The bigger the lie, the easier it will be believed.” (Adolf Hitler)

Yes, this is not a joke! Where usually quotes by famous philosophers, spiritual persons, scientists are printed, you have to read the quote of one of the biggest mass murderers in history.

And as if this was not already enough, the fortune message says (below the logo of the company “Happy”, the biggest chain of fast food restaurants in Bulgaria):

“For good mood”

No, “Happy”, I was not at all in a good mood.

Are you just plain stupid, incredibly insensitive, or do you really want to bring your customers “in a good mood” by offering them fortune messages from a mass murderer? Or do you possibly think that this form of marketing is even clever?

In the last case, I bet that your next fortune messages will be like this:

“A man, a problem – no man, no problem.” (Josef Stalin)

“Everything I did, I did for my country.” (Pol Pot)

“You cannot run faster than a bullet.” (Idi Amin)

“Happy” – the inventor of “Genocide marketing”. Shame on you!

 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 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 mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Castle Gripsholm

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This review is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

This is the perfect summer book and that I read it in November makes my longing for the next summer even stronger. It refutes all prejudices that literature written by German authors has to be serious, heavy, distant, humorless, difficult, and boring.

The narrator – who can very easily be taken for the author – is off for his summer holidays. He is an author publishing for Rowohlt, then and now one of the best addresses for writers in Germany and an – invented – correspondence with Rowohlt who is asking his author to write a light summer story gets the story started.

Our author is traveling by train with his girlfriend (called the Princess) from Berlin to Sweden. But they have of course a stop in Copenhagen. The following quote gives a good idea of the playful tone of the book:

“… We looked at everything: the Tivoli Gardens, the beautiful town hall and the Thorwaldsen Museum, where everything looked as though it was made of plaster. “Lydia!” I called, “Lydia! I almost forgot. We absolutely have to visit the Polysandrion!”

“The … what?” 

“The Polysandrion! You’ve got to see it. Come along.” It was a long walk, because the little museum was right outside the city. 

“What is it?” asked the Princess. 

“You’ll see,” I said. “It’s where a couple of Balts built a house for themselves. One of them, Polysander von Kuckers zu Tiesenhausen, imagines he can paint. But he can’t.”

“And we’re going all this way just to see that?”

“No, not exactly. He can’t paint, but he does – and he always paints the same thing, his adolescent fantasies: young boys and butterflies.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked the Princess. 

“Ask him, he’ll be there. And if he isn’t, then his friend will tell the whole story. Because it has to be told. It’s wonderful.” 

“Is it at least improper?” 

“Would I be taking you if it were, my raven-haired beauty?” 

There stood the little villa – it was unattractive, and it didn’t fit in here at all, either; you might have expected to find it somewhere in the south, in Tuscany or somewhere. We went inside. 

The Princess’ eyes grew round as saucers, and I beheld the Polysandrion for the second time. 

Here a dream had become reality – may God protect us from the like! The good Polysander had covered about forty Square kilometers of expensive canvas with paint. There were the youths, standing and reclining, floating and dancing. It was always the same picture, always the same young men. Pale pink, blue and yellow; the youths in the foreground, the perspective at the back. 

“Those butterflies!” exclaimed Lydia, and took my hand.

“Shh!” I said. “Not so loud! The cleaning woman is following us round. She’ll report everything back to the artist, and we don’t want to hurt him.” But really, those butterflies. They fluttered in the painted air, they had landed on the plump shoulders of the young men, and if until now we had thought that butterflies liked to settle on flowers, this was shown not to be the case. These butterflies much preferred to perch on the young men’s bottoms. It was all highly lyrical. 

“Now I ask you …” said the Princess. 

“Be quiet!” I said. “His friend!”

The painter’s friend appeared, quite an old, pleasant-looking man. He was very respectably dressed, but he had the air of despising the standard grey clothes of our grey century. And his suit got its own back by making him look like an emeritus ephebe. He murmured an introduction, and began explaining. In front of us was the picture of a young man who stood very upright with sword and butterfly, his right hand raised in salute. In the most beautiful, lilting Baltic tones, with all the r’s rolled, the friend said, “What you have beforre you is an entirrely spirritualized verrsion of militarrism.” I turned away – quite appalled. We saw dancing lads, in sailor-suits with floppy collars, and over their heads hung a little lamp with tassels – the kind you have in corridors. It was a sort of furnished version of the Elysian Fields. A whole Paradise had blossomed here, little bits of which so many of the painter’s bosom friends carried around in their souls. Whether it was through being unjustly persecuted, or whatever it was, when they dreamed, they dreamed in soft sky blue, the pinkest shade of blue, so to speak. And they indulged in an awful lot of it. On one wall was a photograph of the artist in his Italian phase, dressed only in sandals and a Zulu-type spear. So paunches were all the rage in Capri. 

“It takes your breath away!” said the Princess, once we were outside. “They aren’t all like that … are they?” 

“No, you shouldn’t blame the species for that. That house is just a plush sofa stuck in the 1890s; they’re not all like that by any means. That man could just as well have peopled his chocolate-box paintings with little elves and gnomes … But imagine what a whole museum would be like, full of those fantasies come true – exquisite!” 

“But it’s so … anaemic!” said the Princess. “Well, it takes all sorts! Let’s drink a schnaps to that!” So we did.”

After a few days in Stockholm, the two rent a room in Castle Gripsholm, an old residence near Lake Mälaren (today housing the National Portrait Gallery of Sweden). Sweden with its friendly and polite inhabitants seems just the right place for the two stressed Berliners to enjoy nature, swimming, reading and bantering with each other. The stories the princess is telling about her boss, an obese soap trader and honorary consul are really funny and so are many remarks of the narrator. For a few days, Karlchen, an old friend of the author and a true original, joins them. He and the princess like to communicate in Low German (Plattdeutsch), a language also the author likes even more than High German. After he leaves, the two lovebirds meet Billie, a Swedish girl they both like immediately and who spends the remaining days of the holiday with them (and a threesome night too).

But even Sweden is not paradise. Near the Castle is a boarding school for girls mainly from Germany where a Mrs Adriani is governing with a mixture of strict rules that are ruthlessly enforced, daily verbal and physical abuse, and the absolute absence of empathy and understanding for the children. Mrs Adriani loves only one thing: her absolute power over the frightened children. Especially Ada, a child that the author, the princess and Billie remark on one of their walks, is the favorite victim of this sadistic dictator. How the small team plots to get Ada out of the hands of this cruel woman is exciting and as a reader I hoped very much for a happy end.

The book was published in 1931, a time of crisis. In Germany the Nazis were on the rise, unemployment and misery too. The story of Mrs Adriani shows one thing: the thirst for power is very strong in many individuals – but when you show resistance, their system can collapse. In a boarding school in Sweden and anywhere else.

Kurt Tucholsky was one of the leading journalists of the Weimar Republic and one of the main contributors of the famous journal Weltbühne, a fighter for democracy, civil rights and press freedom, and against militarism – but he was also a poet and a prose writer, whose witty, light and ironic style was unrivaled in German literature. He died 1935 in his Swedish exile (if it was suicide or an accidental overdose of medicine is still not clear) and is buried near Castle Gripsholm.

If you are looking for the perfect summer story, I strongly recommend you this book.

 Gripsholm

Kurt Tucholsky: Castle Gripsholm, transl. by Michael Hofmann, Overlook Press, New York 2004

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 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 mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Hesse/Mann Letters

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This review is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

Thomas Mann received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, Hermann Hesse in 1946. It goes without saying that I was reading the correspondence of these two eminent writers with great curiosity.

It starts in 1910. Hesse has published in his journal Der März a moderately critical review of Mann’s new novel Royal Highness that seemed to him a bit too harsh afterwards. Therefore Hesse is in a way apologizing to Mann in his very first letter. But Thomas Mann is not offended and answers in his typical conciliatory tone that he appreciates Hesse’s “constructive” remarks. He even writes that he considers to submitting something for publication in Der März but mentions also the fact that he is so busy right now.

After this quite hopeful beginning, the communication lingers rather sluggishly between the two for many years, until 1927 or 1928. The reason for this may be partly because they were too immersed in their own writing business but I suppose it had also something to do with principal differences between the two at least during that period.

While Hesse was a pacifist from an early stage of his life who emigrated to neutral Switzerland, distancing himself from Germany also by adopting Swiss citizenship – he was by the way born as a Russian citizen and was technically never a German national – Thomas Mann was during WWI not free from nationalistic feelings, which he expressed most famously in his Reflections of an Unpolitical Man. But while he fell out completely with his brother Heinrich for several years (they later reconciled) for political reasons – Heinrich was for him the principal partisan of superficial French civilisation as opposed to the much deeper German Kultur of which he saw himself as the main representative – the relations with Hesse remained cordial even during this time.

The lost war and the fierce struggle of the young Weimar Republic for survival from the very beginning against radical elements from the left and even more violently from the right caused Thomas Mann to reassess his previous position. He turned into one of the most outspoken defenders of the new democracy against the radical elements in Germany and in the 1920s he became a kind of unofficial intellectual president of the Republic. In this period he not only became close again with brother Heinrich, also the correspondence with Hesse becomes more regular and much more interesting.

They discuss literature – Hesse’s Steppenwolf has just appeared and praised highly by Thomas Mann -, they discuss Literaturpolitik, especially the role of the Prussian Academy. Mann wants to turn this body into a bulwark against the radicals and seeks for Hesse’s support. But Hesse has already disengaged himself completely from Germany. It’s not that he doesn’t care for it. But he simply doesn’t see the point to get involved in the meetings and proceedings of an organization with which he feels no longer any bond.

The probably most interesting part of the correspondence covers the time from 1933 to 1945. While Mann travels abroad to avoid probable arrest, he still has hope that his works will be available to readers in Germany even after the Nazis took power there. Only after the University of Bonn strips him of his doctoral degree honoris causa and after an intervention of his daughter Erika, he breaks “officially” with Germany and makes it clear that he is siding with the emigrants.

It is revealing that some newspapers in Switzerland, where Hesse is residing, attack Mann and the other exiled German writers in a rather rude and disgusting way. The attack was orchestrated by Eduard Korrodi, a mediocre literary critic with whom also Hesse had a previous falling-out.

Family news (especially touching Mann’s reaction on the suicide of his son Klaus), health issues, exchange of evaluations of the actual political situation, difficulties with publishers or the life of an émigré who has to settle in a surrounding that is completely new to him, support to other émigrés who cannot support themselves or need an affidavit for immigration – there are hardly any issues which the two are not discussing in this interesting correspondence. We as readers see also how the mature masterpieces of the two writers, Hesse’s Glass Bead Game and Mann’s Lotte in Weimar, Doctor Faustus and Felix Krull take shape. Mann, although two years older than Hesse and despite the fact that for several years he was “on the road”, seems to be the more vital one. Hesse’s productivity as a writer was seriously reduced by bad health and he mentions frequently how worn out he feels.

This correspondence contains nothing sensational but it gives interesting insights in the lives and workshops of two of the greatest German-language writers of the 20th century. For me it was touching to see how both men, so different they were in many respects, started to develop a friendship. There is not one occasion when you have the feeling that there is a tension between them or a strong disagreement. I don’t want to psychologize but I guess that the two who read each other’s work carefully understood that also the other one had his own share of demons deep inside and that might be one reason why they felt connected. There is also a deep sense of civility in both writers which they both appreciate very much, especially in a time of barbarity. They both saw themselves also as representatives of the “true” Germany – the one that holds culture and humanism high. When Thomas Mann said that

“Where I am, there is Germany. I carry my German culture in me. I have contact with the world and I do not consider myself fallen,”

we can be sure that Hermann Hesse completely agreed with that notion.

It made me also feel a bit nostalgic to read this correspondence. Hesse – who added frequently a small watercolor painting as a header – and Mann were blessed letter writers. Most of the longer letters seem to be carefully composed although the communication flows so freely. The form of address is changing over the years from the very formal Sehr geehrter Herr to Lieber Freund (dear friend) – especially for the son of a Senator from Lübeck this was an extraordinary sign of connectedness; Mann was usually very polite and friendly, but also distanced in most of his correspondence with other partners.

I am wondering if there will be any comparable correspondence of writers in the time of email and other forms of instant messaging – or is this something we have lost for good?

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Hermann Hesse / Thomas Mann: The Hesse/Mann Letters, transl. by Ralph Manheim, Jorge Pinto Books, New York 2005

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 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 mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Happy Birthday, Turk!

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This review is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

 

Kemal Kayankaya – the name is without doubt Turkish. But Kemal doesn’t speak Turkish because he was adopted by a German couple when he was still a toddler. His parents, immigrants from Anatolia in Frankfurt/Main, died young. And so Kemal grew up like any other German child, except for his name.

A very clever choice by the author, I can say. Because it makes the hero of Happy Birthday, Turk! a born outsider – for many Germans he is the Turk who they think cannot speak proper German and should probably work as a garbage collector and for the Turks he is encountering in his work as a private investigator he is the fellow countryman who truly understands them because he has the same background as they do. But both sides are wrong.

In reality this cocky, quick-witted young man in his late twenties with the talent for seeking trouble who after several attempts to find his true vocation somehow acquired a license for his business, and who has an issue with alcohol, is – like many literary heroes of this genre – a romantic to the core. Just scratch a bit on the surface and you will see…

And this is the case with which the Philip Marlowe of Frankfurt has to deal in this book:

Ahmed Hamul, the husband of Ilter, Kayankaya’s client, was found stabbed to death on the streets of Frankfurt’s red light district. Since the police is not very eager to solve the case and because the wife has little trust in them, she is asking her alleged compatriot for help to find out who murdered her husband. Kayankaya accepts and finds himself soon in a case that gets much bigger than he initially thought.

While meeting the family, K. remarks that the brother-in-law has a particularly low opinion of the victim and except for Ahmet’s widow nobody seems really very interested in finding the truth. Also that the family is hiding the youngest daughter under the pretext that she is ill is a hint for the private eye that something is fishy here.

The police proves little willingness to give the needed information to Kemal and his impudent behavior to some of the admittedly racist policemen doesn’t exactly help. Kommissar Futt (a dialect word for vagina by the way), one of the least endearing exemplars in this biotop is leading the investigation and makes it a personal issue to keep Kayankaya, who fooled him once as alleged investigator from the Turkish Embassy, in the dark.

But fortunately, Kayankaya is in friendly terms with the retired police commissioner Löff who is pulling some strings with his former colleagues and is also later of great help. The slightly chaotic Kayankaya and his unofficial assistant who in his very German pedantic way tries to teach his friend some order and discipline and organization are an odd couple and this adds to the humor in the book which is frequently supported by witty dialogues and descriptions.

While some facts are hinting at a conflict in the red light district – Ahmet had obviously a girl friend among the prostitutes there – it is soon obvious that the issue is bigger than Kayankaya thought. It turns out that Ahmet was close with his father-in-law, who got killed in a car accident just months before. Unless the car accident wasn’t exactly an accident as one of the children that witnessed the event, claimed. But Kayankaya cannot ask the child, because it too fell victim to an accident…

I don’t want to give the whole story away, that would spoil the fun for possible future readers of the book. Honestly speaking, the plot was rather conventional and I saw it more or less coming from an early stage of the book.

But when this sounds a bit derogative, I don’t really mean it. Arjouni was 23 when the book was published first and it is quite an accomplishment for such a young author to deliver such a fast-paced classical hard-boiled crime novel with an interesting main character.

And there is more to the book. As someone who has lived in Frankfurt for several years in the 1990s I can say that the book gives an authentic impression of the place to its readers. Starting from the Frankfurt dialect that is used in the German version (yes, Kayankaya “babbelt” frequently in Frankfurterish – how funny is that?) to the description of the locations (“Wasserhäuschen” inclusive – a kind of kiosk open 24/7, literally “little water house”, the typical place for an alcoholic to buy and drink his booze), it all fits. And there are plenty of hilarious situations that give Kayankaya not only opportunity for acerbic or ironic remarks but also for a playful inventiveness on his (and the author’s) side.

Was Frankfurt, the city with the highest percentage of migrants (and the highest crime rate in Germany) really that racist in the 1980s? I cannot really say from my own experience – but I am not a migrant and my living conditions and the milieu in which I lived and worked there a few years later were very different from Kayankaya’s. Since the whole book is so well written and researched, probably it was.

A good decision by the author was also to choose Frankfurt and not Berlin as the location for this novel. In no other place in Germany is the connection between big money and crime so tangible as here, no other city in Germany looks like a miniature version of Metropolis, no other city has this mixture of backwater mentality and delusions of grandeur.

The only bad thing about the book is that it is such a fast read. I finished it in one sitting during a flight from Istanbul to Almaty. But there are four more Kayankaya novels and I am quite sure you will like all of them. (The whole set is translated and available in the Melville International Crime series)

Jakob Arjouni died last year after a long battle with cancer. A real loss for German literature and especially for crime fiction aficionados. I can also strongly recommend his Magic Hoffmann, a crime novel too (but without Kayankaya).

Arjouni

Jakob Arjouni: Happy Birthday, Turk!, transl. by Anselm Hollo, Melville House, New York 2011

 
© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 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 mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Passport

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This review is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

 

When in 2009 the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the Prize for Literature to Herta Müller, whose opus magnum The Hunger Angel had just appeared in print, I thought that at least this one time the jurors in Stockholm had shown not only that they are able of a decent choice, but that sometimes they have even a sense of timing. Because The Hunger Angel marked the point when Herta Müller got also outside the German-speaking world the attention she deserves. Her first translated work available in English, The Passport, got some favorable reviews but was commercially not a big success.

Müller’s works – and The Passport is no exception – are almost exclusively set in Romania, the country in which she was born and grew up in a small German village (Nitzschkydorf) during the time of the more and more paranoid dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Although Romania didn’t adopt a policy of ethnic cleansing after WWII against the ethnic Germans living there since centuries like most other Eastern European countries did, the situation for the Banat Swabians (Donauschwaben) and the Saxons in Transsylvania (Siebenbürger Sachsen) was far from comfortable.

Most of them had embraced the Nazi ideology during the war, many enrolled in the SS, and the whole community had to pay a high price after the war for this act of treason as it was seen: a big part of the men and women from the German community were sent as slave workers to Siberia for five years and more. Many of them died there and those who survived came back considerably aged and without any hope or illusion for the future. In Siberia they had seen what they before refused to see: that people are able to do any act of cruelty or moral sordidness for a piece of bread.

This is the historical backdrop of The Passport, a very short book of only 100 pages, with chapters that are short or even very short. But this book is anything but a fast and easy read.

Windisch, the village miller, has decided to apply for a passport for himself and his family. The passport is necessary if you want to travel abroad or emigrate to (Western) Germany, as the Windischs plan. Windisch is already waiting more than two years and a half, but doesn’t seem to make any progress with his application, despite the fact that he is bribing the mayor with sacks full of flour. But the flour is not enough, the priest (he has to issue the birth certificates) and the militiaman (his support is crucial for receiving the passports) also need to be bribed.

When Windisch finally understands what these two men want, he is sending his daughter to them…After she sleeps with them, the passport will be finally arranged. In the last chapter we see the Windisch family coming for a visit to their home village after their emigration. While many other Germans emigrated too, a few, like Konrad the night watchman have not. Konrad has even married and intends to stay in Romania, despite all the problems.

Müller arranges her material in a very interesting way. The short chapters have sometimes the character of stand-alone short stories, sometimes they are like vignettes that allow the reader for a moment to catch a glimpse of something that he usually would not see.

One of the most remarkable things in Müller’s book is the language. Very simple and short compact sentences full of poetic, sometimes surrealistic metaphors. The German title would be literally translated “A man is nothing but a pheasant in the world”, obviously a local saying that is quoted in an early conversation between Windisch and Konrad by the latter. Windisch retorts that a man is strong, stronger as the beasts, but later after his daughter Amalie has slept with the village officials, he is repeating Konrad’s sentence as if to remind the reader that he was wrong and too optimistic about the strength of man.

The story of Windisch and his family is intervowen with other stories: the story of Rudi the glass maker who is not right in his head, and his parents; the story of Dieter, Amalie’s friend, who is shot dead while obviously attempting to cross the Danube to Yugoslavia; the story of Konrad, the night watchman; the story of the skinner and his wife; the story of the carpenter; and also stories that are told like anecdotes from the past: the story when the king passed by with his train before the war and the village couldn’t sing the welcome song because the king was asleep and his entourage insisted on not waking him up for some villagers; and there are even stories about the owl that was seen in the village and that the villagers consider as a sign for something to happen; and most disturbingly the story of the apple tree that was eating his own apples before the war and that had to be burned therefore to drive away all the evil.

There are signs of alienation everywhere. When Windisch passes the church, he wants to go inside to pray. But:

“The church door is locked. Saint Anthony is on the other side of the wall. He is carrying a white lily and a brown book. He is locked in.”

There is no hope to be expected in this world from the church, St. Anthony, or even God. Later in the book, when we learn about the disgusting priest, who uses his power position – without birth certificate no emigration – to extort sex from the women he fancies, we understand why.

There is alienation of course between the Romanians and the Germans; the Romanians are contemptuosly called “Wallachians” by the Germans and vice versa the Romanians wonder how, after Hitler, it is possible that there are still Germans in Romania. But it is not only for the Romanians that the Swabians feel contempt, the same goes for their feelings for the Germans in Western Germany, especially the women. “The worst Swabian woman is still better than the best over there.”

Children cannot escape this paranoid world of the village where the Securitate, the mighty intelligence network of the secret police is watching  over everything. Amalie, who works as a schoolteacher, is instructing the kids:

“Amalie points on the map. “This land is our Fatherland”, she says. With her fingertip she searches for the black dots on the map. “These are the towns of the Fatherland,” says Amalie. “The towns are the rooms of the big house, our country. Our fathers and mothers live in houses. They are our parents. Every child has its parents. Just as the father in the house in which we live is our father, so Comrade Nicolae Ceausescu is the father of our country. And just as the mother in the house in which we live is our mother, so Comrade Elena Ceausescu is the mother of our country. Comrade Nicolae Ceausecu is the father of all children. And Comrade Elena Ceausescu is the mother of all children. All the children love comrade Nicolae and comrade Elena, because they are their parents.” ” 

(It is rather embarrassing that The Times Literary Supplement (!) claims in its review: “Every such incidence of misdirection is the whole book in miniature, for although Ceausescu is never mentioned, he is central to the story, and cannot be forgotten.” – This happens when reviewers don’t read the book they are supposed to write about.)

Even worse is the alienation between men and women. Men use their position to get what they want from the women: sex. In Siberia, Amalie’s mother was a whore. She was selling her body for food and warm clothes in order to survive, and now Amalie is stepping in her mother’s shoes, spreading her legs for the priest and the militaman to get herself and her family out of this place where all the children love the parents of the country so much.

It is revealing that when she was a child and was almost raped by Rudi, her father was blaming her, not Rudi: “Amalie will bring disgrace down on us.” The conversation that the drunk Windisch, his wife and his daughter have over lunch after Amalie’s visit to the priest and the militiaman, is rather depressing, but it shows exactly how things are between men and women in this village, in this society:

“Windisch’s wife sucks the small, white bones. She swallows the short pieces of meat on the chicken’s neck. “Keep your eyes open, when you get married,” she says. “Drinking is a bad illness.” Amalie licks her red fingertips. “And unhealthy,” she says. Windisch looks at the dark spider. “Whoring is healthier,” he says. Windisch’s wife strikes the table with her hand.”

The Passport is a difficult, sometimes even depressing read. A paranoid system like Romania under Ceausescu is doing the things to people that Herta Müller is describing in this book. It is poisoning even the most private feelings, activities, relationships. It is easy to understand that the author’s honest, unvarnished description of German village life in the Banat didn’t bring her many friends in her own community. Until recently she was still the target of smear campaigns of former Securitate agents and Danube Swabians who want to paint a nicer picture of their own past – for whatever reasons.

If you look for an easy, fast, superficially enjoyable book – this one is not for you. But if you like to read a beautifully crafted, multi-layered book about the human condition in times like ours, I can heartily recommend The Passport to you. It is also a reminder that there is absolutely nothing to feel nostalgic about for any dictatorship like Ceausescu’s Romania was.

 

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Herta Müller: The Passport, transl. by Martin Chalmers, Serpent’s Tail, London 1989 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 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 mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.