Tag Archives: Jakob Arjouni

Magic Hoffmann

West Germany, a short time before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Fred, Nickel and Annette are three young people from the South Hessian provincial town of Dieburg. They dream of the big wide world, more specifically of Canada. They do not have any real ideas about this distant country, only that there everything is much nicer and more interesting than in their godforsaken hometown. Fred “Magic” Hoffmann, the one of the three who has a reputation of being a prankster, wants to plant an apple orchard there and produce apple wine (Eppelwoi), the signature drink of their home region – a project that seems almost as realistic as growing pineapples in Alaska.

What distinguishes this youthful dropout fantasy from many others is simply that the three go one step further than many peers in a similar situation. They are planning a bank robbery, which should give them the necessary seed capital. And they are not stopping at the planning phase: astonishingly, their robbery of a bank branch in a neighboring village is successful; the 600,000 marks, are not a gigantic sum, but enough to build an existence in Canada. But Fred gets caught – planning and executing the bank robbery is dealt with in the novel in a few lines only – and sentenced to four years in juvenile jail, which he does with stoic patience and without betraying his partners in crime – finally he has one goal: when he gets out, his share of 200,000 and his friends are waiting for him, and then: off to Canada! (After all, he uses the prison time to teach himself some English, which he then uses in every appropriate and inappropriate opportunity in his dialogues.)

How great is his surprise when his friends do not pick him up at the prison gate and their postal addresses turn out to be no longer correct. It must have come something in between and the friends also did not want to make themselves suspicious and therefore had little contact with Fred during his detention. Finally, the unsuspecting Fred finds out that his friends are now living in Berlin and he is soon on his way to meet them there. But in Berlin he experiences one surprise after another, and most of them are not at all pleasant …

We are in the novel Magic Hoffmann (that’s the title in the German original) by Jakob Arjouni, who has become famous for his books about the German-Turkish private detective Kemal Kayankaya. If you expect Kemal to appear here as well, you will be disappointed; however, what works quite similar to the Kayankaya novels is Arjouni’s art of developing a character, his often witty dialogues, his eye for the absurdity of certain things and situations, and his unsentimental view of Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s, his seemingly cynical remarks and his sympathy for his main character, who, despite everything, is quickly taken to the heart of the reader.

The book is also largely a Berlin novel – whereby the city’s description pleasantly differs from many works that want to sell us the old-new German capital as the navel of the world. When Fred comes to the city for the first time, he is quite disappointed: Berlin looks the same way as Frankfurt, Darmstadt or Wiesbaden, except that the Berlin people obviously do not understand Fred’s special kind of humor; Berliners are regularly rude and unfriendly in this novel, a fact with which Fred has difficulty to cope with. And then there are things that are completely new to Fred: the reunited Germany, the frequent talk of the nation, the anti-Semitism, the presence of violent neo-Nazis in the subway, the police, who are not too eager to do their job and to protect the law, Russians who are doing all sorts of illegal business behind a legal cover, petty criminals and extortionate taxi drivers to watch out for, young people like Nickel and Annette, who think of themselves as progressive and hip, but who behind this façade, often have reactionary opinions and extremely conservative ideas about their aims in life. And everywhere it smells bad and the sky is gray in this city. Berlin can not really impress a Magic Hoffmann. Maybe it’s because he’s just passing through.

He realizes that his friends have changed a lot. Nickel studies to become a teacher, he has a family and the money of the robbery well-hidden in an investment scheme in Luxembourg. Fred has a lot of patience with him, but then he has to use some serious pressure to get his share. And Annette works on film projects that never get beyond the planning and discussion stage, otherwise she lives in her bubble of pseudo-artists who are looking down on someone like Fred with contempt; it is telling that both of them are very surprised when Fred asks them when they will be leaving for Canada, since neither for Nickel nor for Annette, this has been ever a serious plan.

But luck seems to embrace Fred nevertheless. He encounters the freaky dancer Moni, who does not bother with his completely unfashionable clothes, his strange look or his crime “career”. The two are getting closer and Fred is forging plans for a life together with Moni in Canada before fate is striking mercilessly.

A great novel in my opinion: it has a high pace, interesting characters and dialogues, it has wit and it allows the reader to take an unusual but very revealing look at the reunited Germany. Unusual because the reader identifies very quickly with the main character Fred Hoffmann. Fred is a modern literary relative of Eichendorff’s Good-for-nothing; he is an outsider for various reasons: bank robber, small town boy, traveler, a person without exaggerated artistic or intellectual ambitions, he is everything that would be described in Berlin as the opposite of hip. But unlike his fake friends, Fred has remained true to his dreams and ideals, with a mixture of naivety and mother wit that makes him very likeable.

The German edition of the novel I read has almost 300 pages; I read the book in one sitting. Highly recommended! What a great loss that Jakob Arjouni died relatively young!

Jakob Arjouni: Magic Hoffmann, Diogenes 2012; Magic Hoffman, Old Castle 2000, No Exit Press (Tr. Geoffrey Mulligan)

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-9. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Happy Birthday, Turk!

glm_iv1 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.

German Literature Month – My book selection

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As you know from one of my previous posts, I will participate in the German Literature Month hosted by my blogger colleagues Lizzie (Lizzie’s Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) in November for the fourth time.

Luckily, I won one of the giveaways of Lizzie, Marjana Gaponenko’s novel Who is Martha? about which I have read enthusiastic reviews in the German-speaking media. Gaponenko is a young author from Odessa that writes in German. She won the prestigeous Adelbert von Chamisso Prize for German-language authors whose mother tongue is not German in 2013. Who is Martha is her second novel and I am very glad that I will have a copy fresh from the printing press for review.

It was not so easy to pick the other books I will read and review for the German Lit Month, simply because the pile of good and interesting books is too big. After some back and forth I decided that I will read and discuss these books in November:

The Nightwatches of Bonaventura (attributed to Ernst August Friedrich Klingemann) (novel), University of Chicago Press 2014 

Marjana Gaponenko: Who is Martha? (novel), New Vessel Press 2014 

Hermann Hesse / Thomas Mann: The Hesse/Mann Letters, Jorge Pinto Books 2005 

Herta Müller: The Passport (novel), Serpent’s Tail 1989 

Joseph Roth: Rebellion (novel), St. Martin’s Press 1999

I have one or two more books in mind I would like to review, but five books is already quite an ambitious programme and I am not sure if I will have enough time to read and review more in November.

Now I am really a bit excited to see what the other participants will read and review!

P.S.: Since I won – again! – a giveaway at Lizzy’s Literary Life’s ‘Wednesdays are Wunderbar!’, I am gladly adding one more book to the list:

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Why We Took the Car (novel), Scholastic 2014 

It will be a very busy month, but the books are worth it!

P.P.S.: In the last weeks, three more books have popped up that I would like to include in the German Literature Month:

Jakob Arjouni: Happy birthday, Turk! (novel), No Exit Press 1996

Kurt Tucholsky: Castle Gripsholm (story), Overlook Press 1988

Jonathan Franzen: The Kraus Project (essays), Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013

You may be surprised to find a title of Jonathan Franzen on this list, but The Kraus Project is indeed a translation of four essays of Karl Kraus by Franzen, with extensive footnotes by him, the Kraus scolar Paul Reitter, and Daniel Kehlmann.

I hope I can really read and review all this in November!

 

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