Tag Archives: novel

Fatherland

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Counterfactual history, i.e. the question “what would have happened if …” the events would not have taken the well-known historical, but another conceivable path, has become in recent years – at least according to my impression – an increasingly popular narrative vehicle in literary fiction. The Nazi era in particular seems to be a prolific territory for this genre, just think of works as diverse as Philip Roth’s “Conspiracy against America”, Timur Vermes’ “Look Who’s Back” or Robert Harris’ “Fatherland”, the work I am reviewing here.

Harris, until then known as a journalist and non-fiction author, reported in detail for the press in the Anglo-Saxon countries about the “Hitler diaries”, which the German magazine “Stern” had “discovered” in the 80s. (These diaries proved of course to be a hoax, and it is difficult to understand how anyone could in all seriousness believe in the authenticity of these amateurishly made up “diaries”.) In the course of his preoccupation with this period, Harris wondered how Europe would have looked like if the Nazis would have achieved their war goals. The result was his first novel “Fatherland”, published in 1992.

Berlin, 1964: The Nazis have won WWII and have created a Europe dominated by the Greater German Reich. The borders of the Reich extend to the Urals, behind which the remains of the Soviet Union, with which there are still border skirmishes, has withdrawn. While 11 million Jews have been “resettled” and then disappeared without a trace (nobody dares to ask questions about this topic), and the Slavic population has been decimated and turned into slave laborers, millions of Germans have taken over the conquered territories in the framework of a huge resettlement program. In these newly conquered territories however, dissatisfaction is rising and partisan raids have reached an increasingly dangerous level. The European Union, a creation of Nazi Germany and of course dominated by it, has its headquarters in Berlin; its members are independent only by name but de facto satellite states of Nazi Germany; a separate peace was concluded with Great Britain and the USA; the only remaining free country on the European continent is Switzerland. Berlin, which has been fundamentally redesigned by Speer according to Hitler’s megalomanic plans, is preparing for the celebrations of the dictator’s 75th birthday (Harris follows in his novel until about 1942 the actual biographies of the Nazi elite and then switches on his “counterfactual mode”.). While some notable Nazi officials such as Goering or Himmler are already dead in the novel, others such as Goebbels – who still requires attractive actresses to come to him for an “audition” – or Heydrich, Hitler’s potential successor, who controls the Gestapo and SD apparatus, are still in office. 

This is the backdrop in front of which the plot unfolds, and in the beginning the reader seems to be in a classic detective novel. The corpse of an old man is pulled from a lake near Berlin. Both the identity of the man and the cause of death are initially unknown and it looks first like a routine case for the responsible investigator of the criminal police, detective Xavier March.

However, the peculiarities accumulate in the framework of the investigation, and the experienced March smells soon that there is something fishy about this case (I want to avoid spoilers and will therefore not convey too much of the plot). Having established the identity of the dead – it is a Nazi of the first hour – and March, thanks to the conspiratorial assistance of an old friend who now works in the gigantic party archives, discovers a startling parallel with the recent deaths of other prominent Nazis. The traces of all these deaths lead back to the year 1942, to a villa on the Wannsee, where the organization of the so-called “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was discussed. Could it be that Heydrich wants to cover up all traces and kill all surviving participants of this conference? And why is March suddenly crossing paths on more than one occasion with Odilo Globocnik, the sadistic and brutal bloodhound of Heydrich? Why is an important eyewitness suddenly dead? Is it all somehow connected with the planned meeting between Hitler and US President Joseph Kennedy (the anti-Semite and father of John F. Kennedy)? After all, since the announcement of a planned pact between Nazi Germany and the United States, the popularity of the US president in the polls has increased so much that his re-election seems certain. (The US Ambassador in Berlin, Charles Lindbergh, also a Nazi sympathizer, certainly is the right man in the right place in Harris’ novel.) Of course, the sudden emergence of documents that prove the full extent of the Holocaust, would be in such a sensitive situation diplomatically more than inconvenient.

The case is withdrawn from March, who is supposed to not uncover the truth; and he becomes a target of the State Police himself; nevertheless, March keeps on investigating in secret and discovers what is at the bottom of all these cases; the situation becomes increasingly dangerous for March, but he has no choice…

The plot is not all that matters in Fatherland. The protagonist of the book who is formally belonging to the SS, but who in the past has been plagued by doubts about the official party line and politics, is increasingly removing himself from the regime he has served for many years. The description of this process is almost as exciting and convincing as the thriller plot itself.

Fatherland is an absolute page turner; after I started reading, I could not put the book down until I had finished it. I do not want to say that this is a literary masterpiece, but it’s a very entertaining and exciting read and for some readers also the documents about the Wannsee conference in the novel may be something new.

The book has some weaknesses: first of all, the absolutely impossible name of the main character and the very clichéd female protagonist and love-interest of March, an American journalist (here Harris seems to have been already too much preoccupied regarding the later movie) are not convincing.

However, the book is really exciting and you can tell that the author has done his homework regarding the Nazi era and its ideology. The strongest part of the book for me is when Harris describes the leaden, nightmarish atmosphere in Berlin in 1964; the mistrust and fear in which people live in this totalitarian society; the instrumentalization of even the closest family ties (exemplified by the betrayal of March by his own son); the suppression of truth and historical facts and the self-censorship of thoughts. There is nothing great about the victorious Greater German Reich, beyond the dimensions of a deeply inhuman architecture, which aims at intimidation, the demonstration of absolute power, and the reduction of the masses to a mere ornament.

All in all, and despite the weaknesses mentioned, a worthwhile and entertaining book that encourages the reader to learn more about the Nazi era and totalitarian dictatorships in general. 

Robert Harris: Fatherland, Arrow Books 2017

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-8. 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.

The White Coast

Balchik is a small coastal town at the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, approximately 30 kilometers north of Varna. A century ago, it was not much more than a fishing village, but its natural location at a small bay, its Mediterranean climate and its picturesque houses and small streets made it a magnet for the Romanian aristocracy and also for many artists – there was even a rather famous “Balchik School of Painting”. The painters came here during the long summer, hunting for motives and enjoying a carefree and relaxed lifestyle at this small Black Sea town.

Wait a moment, did I say “Romanian aristocracy”? Yes, indeed – some parts of North Eastern Bulgaria belonged to Romania in the period between 1913 and 1940, and therefore Balchik was for a few decades the most popular destination in Romania for these people in summer. Visitors who come to Balchik today – and you should visit the place once you come to the Bulgarian Black Sea coast – will see the impact this Romanian period had on the town until today.

Balchik

Balchik is a popular tourist destination because of the Palace of the Romanian Queen Maria (this Palace is indeed more like a small summer residence), and the small number of buildings attached to it, amongst which a minaret stands out that gives the place a bit of an “oriental” atmosphere. There is also a marble throne on the beach in front of the Palace, a favorite spot of the Queen from which she could look out at the Black Sea, waiting for a particular guest who would come by ship…

It was also the Queen, who – with the assistance of two Italian architects and a Swiss landscape gardener – arranged the whole plot of land as a mix of traditional, Moldovan and Oriental architecture with antique references, and who integrated a wonderful botanical garden (after years of neglect now taken care of by Sofia University); this botanical garden alone is worth a visit, and the part that is reserved for the different varieties of cacti is said to be the second biggest in Europe.

The biographical novel “The White Coast” by Marina Konstantinova (Largo City 2013, tr. Svetoslav Bogdanov) tells the story of Queen Maria and her “Quiet Nest” in Balchik, as she used to call it. Born Marie of Edinburgh as the daughter of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh (later Duke of Saxe-Coburg) and his wife, Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, she got married to Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania, the heir apparent of King Carol I. in 1892 (he became King of Romania in 1914); she had six children.

Marriages within the royal families in Europe were dynastic affairs, and love was not necessarily part of the marriage arrangement. In Maria’s (or Missy’s, as she was called by almost everyone) case, there was a mutual affection that lasted over the decades, but husband Ferdinand was a very different character than his wife, and a process of estrangement triggered by the King’s frequent affairs led to an arrangement that allowed the Queen to lead a comparatively independent life, in which she was allowed to pursue her own interests that were mainly in the field of beauty and art.

Maria was a talented painter and musician, she wrote poetry and published several books of literary value. Apart from that, she took care of her surviving children (her youngest son died at the age of three) and in the building of her “Quiet Nest” in Balchik. The novel describes this period in Balchik, which was the happiest in Maria’s life. The story is told by two narrators, one of them is the Queen herself – the author has of course made use of Missy’s own writings -, the other one is the author. This switching between perspectives is easy to follow (the book is using bold script for Missy’s chapters), and the picture of the main character in the book is gaining more depth by this little “trick” of the author.

The Queen Maria we get to know in the novel, was a romantic, someone who occupied herself with her inner life, with beauty in art and nature, and with spiritual questions. But she took also very practical part in the creation of her small paradise, and took interest in the lives of her neighbors in Balchik. The building of a small port, the incoming guests, the money earned by the construction of the Palace and the garden, it all had a positive impact on the life and economic situation of the people in Balchik, and – if we can believe Missy’s writings – therefore the Queen was genuinely liked by the local people.

The book is also – and probably this is the most important part – the story of a great love. I mentioned the marble throne at the beach in Balchik. Here, Missy would wait after her husband’s death for the arrival of a man whom she had met only once; the enigmatic Arab sailor Ali, who fell in love with the Queen at first sight in Egypt when they were once introduced to each other on one occasion. After their meeting, Ali started to write her letters, and it was the letters that raised the interest of the Queen, who had never met a man who really loved her. I will not give away more, but the love story between Missy and Ali is the true center of the book and the author of the novel has done a remarkable job to tell this story in comparatively simple words but without false clichés.

I enjoyed this small and unassuming book; for later editions a few typos and minor translation errors should be corrected, but these small issues didn’t affect my reading much. If you want to get to know the story behind this truly unique place, reading “The White Coast” is a nice way to inform yourself, especially for those who visited Balchik.

The White Coast” can be bought at the Palace in Balchik, but you could also contact the publisher directly (Email: alfa3@abv.bg). Apart from the Bulgarian and English version, the book is also translated in Romanian and Russian.

Marina Konstantinova: The White Coast, Largo City 2013, translated by Svetoslav Bogdanov

Photo credit: Stefka Vasileva/Creative Commons

This review was first published at Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, 9 June, 2018 for #BulgarianLiteratureMonth.

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-8. 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.

 


News from #BulgarianLiteratureMonth

After the first third of Bulgarian Literature Month at the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative – editor/curator is yours truly -, I can say that it is a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. The correspondence with and reactions of contributors, readers, and even authors are so far very encouraging.

Here an overview regarding the published blog posts until now:

Bulgarian Literature Month – a short introduction
Promoting Bulgarian Literature in the Anglosphere: Interview with Milena Deleva, Managing Director of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation
The Satire of Alek Popov (by Ellis Shuman)
Georgi Gospodinov’s Natural Novel (by Scott Bailey)
Albena Stambolova’s Everything Happens As It Does (by Jean Ping)
Blagovest Sendov: John Atanasoff – The Electronic Prometheus
“Our bitter beloved borderless Balkans”: Kapka Kassabova’s Border (by Dorian Stuber)
Bulgarian Poetry in English Translation: Anthologies – an overview 
Bulgarian Poetry in English Translation (II): the pre-1944 period
Bulgarian Poetry in English Translation (III/1): the period 1944-1989 – Konstantin Pavlov
Marina Konstantinova: The White Coast

Several of the blog posts have been re-blogged, shared or re-tweeted, some of our reviewers also spread the word, and this little piece by Scott Bailey made me smile (especially the headline of the article).

I am expecting some extremely interesting contributions in the upcoming days. Check it out and spread the word about #BulgarianLiteratureMonth – thank you!

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-8. 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.

In Times of Fading Light

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In Times of Fading Light is the debut novel of Eugen Ruge (b. 1954 in Sosva/Ural). It is loosely based on the fate of Ruge’s own family and tells the story of the four generations of the Umnitzer family. The book was very favorably reviewed after publication; it was awarded the Deutscher Buchpreis (German Book Award) in 2011, and sold more than half a million copies on the German-language market. In the reviews it has been sometimes compared to the Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. Foreign rights have been sold to 28 countries so far.   

The book has, as I understand it, two central themes: the slow disintegration of the Umnitzer family, whose story is told in the book, and the change of attitude by the four generations of the family toward the big experiment of communism, as applied in the GDR. 

Wilhelm Powileit, the family patriarch whose 90th birthday celebration in October 1989 is one of the central events in the book, was a communist from early age on. A metal worker, party member from the time of the foundation of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) in 1919, later involved in fighting the Kapp putsch, and during the first years of the Nazi era busy with illegal work for the party that included smuggling of people and propaganda material, but also the liquidation of ‘traitors’, felt always to be a man with a purpose and without doubt. The hardships of exile in Mexico, later a short stay in Russia and return in 1952 to East Germany even strengthened his belief in the Stalinist ideas. As a so-called Westemigrant he was viewed with suspicion by the people in charge in the Party in the GDR, and therefore he was not able to rise to a higher rank in the party hierarchy. But he develops a kind of grass root activism that earns him year after a year a new medal of honor and a visit of the party secretary with rather boring speeches. It suits the party to showcase a man like Wilhelm Powileit, with such an exemplary resume, even when some of the events mentioned in it are somehow blurred, and it is fairly obvious that the official CV is more a legend than the truth. But the most important is anyway always missing in official resumes – a truth that Wilhelm discovers surprisingly once his memory becomes very weak as a result of beginning dementia (or is it the medication that his wife is supervising?).

Contrary to Wilhelm, his wife Charlotte (divorced Umnitzer, hence the different family name of the following generations) made quite a career after returning to the GDR, in the newly founded Academy. Her marriage of convenience was based mainly on the shared belief in the communist ideal, and their long life together was always submerged to the fight for an allegedly brighter future for the working class. But for Charlotte, who had a very unhappy and abusive childhood and difficult first marriage with two children, the communist ideology was also a kind of escape, an idea that filled in a void in her life, something to stick to with all her might, because it provided the stability that was lacking in her life. 

While the oldest generation seems to have no doubt about their political convictions and beliefs, the same cannot be said for Kurt Umnitzer, Charlotte’s son and Wilhelm’s step son. Kurt is an academic, one of the leading historians of the country, and a very productive one. While he is convinced that the ideals of socialism are worth fighting for, and also that the experiment of its practical implementation is a historical major achievement, he is not blind for certain unpleasant truths. As an adolescent, he and his brother Werner were growing up in the Soviet Union to be trained as a part of the future post-WWII elite in Communist Germany (Wolfgang Leonhard or Markus Wolf come to mind), but a letter in which they voiced doubt regarding the wisdom of the Molotov/Ribbentrop pact changed their lives dramatically: as a consequence of the discovery of the content of this letter, they were exiled to different camps in Siberia; Werner didn’t survive this punishment in Vorkuta, but Kurt who was exiled to another place did, later to return with his Russian wife Irina and their son Alexander to the GDR; Irina’s mother Nadjeshda later joins, but she never feels at home in Germany and dreams to go home to her village in the Ural.

Alexander, Kurt’s and Irina’s son, is in some way the central figure of the novel. This is obvious from the fact that the book starts and ends with a chapter following his fate. The book’s first chapter describes how Alexander, just diagnosed with an obviously incurable form of cancer, takes care of his father who suffers from an advanced form of dementia. In an attempt to re-connect with the story of his family and in making sense of his life, he travels to Mexico, a place he knows from many conversations at home. But it’s not the real thing, a touristic experience with a bit of nostalgia. Alexander, who left the GDR shortly before its complete collapse, thinks about his failed career in West Germany, his inability to feel at home anywhere, his failed relationships with the women in his life, his complete failure as a father. The socialist ideal was never something that appealed to him, but he wasn’t able to find something else to occupy this empty spot in his life.

For Markus, the youngest Umnitzer, and representative of the fourth generation, the political ideas of his grandparents and great-grandparents are already history only. It’s something about which you read in the history book but with which you have no connection, despite the fact that once great-grandfather Wilhelm visited the school to tell the students about his early years in the KPD and his acquaintance with Karl Liebknecht, the party founder. 

There are other interesting elements in the book; particularly the role of the women in the family as opposed to the men. They are not just some kind of ‘sidekick’, but occupy a prominent role in the novel, and have to struggle with their own tragedies. Also the structure of the novel is very interesting and elaborated: while several chapters, including the first and the last take place in 2001, the one central event in the book is Wilhelm’s 90th birthday, a day in which almost the whole family comes together and in which the open and hidden conflicts are revealed; no less than six chapters focus on this single day; in between them there are several flashbacks – starting from 1952, the year of return of Wilhelm and Charlotte – and also returns to the present time (2001); additionally, there are various flashbacks that recount certain events in the past, so that the novel covers over all a period from 1919 to 2001. This structure is rather elaborate and may sound confusing, but I had no problem to follow it; one of the advantages of this structure as compared to a linear and chronological account was for me that it was clear from the beginning that Alexander is the main hero of the book – although as a reader you can make also a different choice.

There are a number of comical situations, and also humour in the book. The language is unpretentious and doesn’t try to impress you. Maybe that was one of the reasons why this was such a successful book: it is easy to read. No long and winding Thomas Mann sentences, no polished prose as in Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower, the novel with which Ruge’s book has sometimes been compared. 

The title of the book is a reference to the potato harvest in the village in the Ural in early fall in which Kurt lived, but it is also a metaphor for the fading light that the communist ideal shines on the Umnitzer family and that gets weaker with every generation.

Overall this is a well-crafted novel I really enjoyed. I read it in German; therefore I cannot say anything regarding the quality of the translation. 

Eugen Ruge: In Times of Fading Light, translated by Anthea Bell, Graywolf Press 2014 

This review is published in the framework of the 2017 edition of German Literature Month, organized again by Caroline from Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. A list with links to all published reviews by the participating bloggers can be found here.

#germanlitmonth2017

Other Reviews:
Lizzy’s Literary Life 
MadabouttheBooks 
James Reads Books
love german books
Tony’s Reading List
ausgelesen
Kultur oder Wissenschaft

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. 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.

Master of the Day of Judgment

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Automn 1909 in Vienna. The famous actor Eugen Bischoff has invited a few friends to his villa for a Hausmusik evening (a tradition in many cultured German and Austrian homes). Together with his wife Dina, her brother Felix, his friend Doctor Gorsky, and the narrator Rittmeister von Yosch the amateur musicians play several pieces from the classical repertoire. A rather late arrival, the engineer Solgrub interrupts unintentionally the music performance, and the friends are starting to ask Bischoff about his new role, Shakespeare’s King Lear. Bischoff retires briefly to a garden pavilion pretending to need a short preparation time for giving his friend a short performance to show them how he understands this role. Suddenly, two shots are heard from the pavilion. When the alarmed company rushes to the place, they find Eugen Bischoff dead.

Was it suicide? Was it murder, as Solgrub believes? But then, the door of the pavilion was locked from the inside…Had the narrator a hand in it? After all he had a motif: four years ago, he had an affair with Dina and was madly in love with her. While Dina and Felix suspect at least an indirect involvement of von Yosch in the death of Eugen Bischoff, Solgrub points at several similarly mysterious suicide cases in the recent past. While all four male characters start – sometimes individually, sometimes together – to investigate about what’s behind the mysterious death of Eugen Bischoff, it turns out that more shocking events are going to happen. The key to resolving the mystery seems to be an old manuscript from the 16th century that tells the tale of an Italian painter, known as the Master of the Day of Judgment, a tale that gives an uncanny explanation to the mysterious events unfolding in the Vienna of the year 1909.  

It would spoil the fun to read this book if I would give away more details here regarding the plot. I enjoyed this book tremendously, for several reasons.

Perutz writes a very elegant prose, and this together with his ability to depict situations, people and the few unexpected twists and turns in the story made me devour this book in one sitting. I found it unputdownable (I like this English word!). Perutz knew the milieu about which he was writing very well, and I had the impression that he had a fine ear also for social differences and how they affect the way how people speak in the book – the use of dialect of a taxi driver; the switching to the familiar ‘Du’, but adding the for non-Austrians funny ‘Herr Rittmeister’ by a former army officer unknown to von Yosch when he is talking to the narrator, based on the simple fact that they served in the same military unit; the servile approach of the people working in the pharmacy; the extremely polite way of speech of the Sephardic money-lender; these are just some of the pleasures of this book.

Another thing that I liked: it is difficult to say to what genre this somehow hybrid book belongs, and I think this is one of its strengths – it so unlike most of other genre books you will read. It borrows elements of the mystery genre; it is also a variation of the locked door mystery; there are elements of horror that let me think of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe, or even Stephen King. And it has also elements of a historical novel. Additionally, the narrator is a character with more facets as meet the eye in the beginning. Below the surface of the cultured, book and music loving man with a rich emotional life, is also someone who is strictly following the military code of honor, and to him the killing of a man in a duel for a rather trifling matter is not a big deal, a fact about which even his friends have no illusion.

And one more thing: the novel is also to be read in the tradition of the literary sub-genre “The Perpetrator as Investigator” that is quite popular in German literature: the main character is investigating a crime that he himself has (possibly) committed – Heinrich von Kleist’s Broken Jug, Heinrich Spoerl’s The Muzzle, or Heimito von Doderer’s Every Man a Murderer come to mind.

The last chapter, the remarks of the person who found von Yosch’s manuscript, give the text again a new possible interpretation. The story can be read as a mystery or fantasy novel; but the biggest mystery, as the novel advances is hidden in the souls of the characters of this book, and their obsessions with the horrors they faced in a certain moment of their lives, and with the feelings of guilt they experienced in traumatic situations. To quote a word by Edgar Allan Poe: “I maintain that terror is not of Germany (or in this case: Austria – T.H.), but of the soul.”

I read the book in German, therefore I can’t say anything regarding the quality of the translation.

Leo Perutz was born in Prague in 1882; he attended the same school as Max Brod and Felix Weltsch, two close friends of Franz Kafka, who were slightly younger than Perutz. Later he worked in Trieste (in a time when James Joyce and Italo Svevo lived there) as a mathematician for the same insurance company as Kafka. A compensation formula he worked out was for a long time used in insurance business all over the world (the ‘Perutz’sche Ausgleichsformel’). Just like Robert Musil, who left a mark outside the literary world (he invented the ‘Musil color top’), he was a man with more than one talent. Perutz was very successful as an author in Vienna in the 1920’s and 1930’s, but his Jewish origin made publication after 1938 impossible, and his emigration to Palestine where he felt cut off from the culture and language to which he belonged, made his life difficult. Additionally, he was opposed to the creation of the state of Israel and was supporting a bi-national solution for Palestine as a home for Jews and Arabs as well. In the 1950’s he started to travel to Austria again frequently. He died in 1957 in Bad Ischl, while visiting his old friend Alexander Lernet-Holenia.

If you haven’t read anything by Perutz, I can heartily recommend his books. And if you don’t trust me, trust Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino or Graham Greene who loved his books. Also Theodor W. Adorno, Ian Fleming, F.W. Murnau and Alfred Hitchcock were fans of Perutz. My personal Perutz favorite is By Night under the Stone Bridge, but also The Master of the Day of Judgment is excellent in my opinion.

Leo Perutz: Master of the Day of Judgment, translated by Eric Mosbacher, Pushkin 2015

This review is published in the framework of the 2017 edition of German Literature Month, organized again by Caroline from Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. A list with links to all published reviews by the participating bloggers can be found here.

#germanlitmonth2017

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. 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 Seventh Well

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The Seventh Well by Fred Wander is a book in the tradition of the works of Primo Levi, Imre Kertesz, Elie Wiesel or Julius Fučík about the Holocaust. Although it’s a novel, it is an only slightly fictionalized account of experiences of its author as an inmate in no less than twenty Nazi concentration camps in France, Poland and Germany.

The book consists of twelve comparatively short chapters. The chapters as well as the events reported in them are not always in chronological order. The book – and this was a wise decision in my opinion – does not aim at being an exhaustive report of all the sufferings of its author/narrator; it rather focuses in each chapter on one or a small group of inmates, their characteristics, background, bits of information about their life “before” – when they were just ordinary people with all their strengths and defaults, dreams and obsessions, family life, political convictions, religious creeds, with their love of money, sex, alcohol, or literature and story-telling. And indeed, the title of the opening chapter is How to Tell a Story, and I must quote the very first sentences here:

“In the beginning was a conversation. Three weeks after the conversation, Mendel died.”

What follows this almost Biblical entry is a portrait of the above-mentioned man, Mendel Teichmann, a middle-aged Jew who would tell every other Sunday afternoon stories to the other inmates who gathered to listen to him. These first eight pages set the tune for the whole book. The other vignettes in the book are similarly impressive.

While the SS guards and their willing local helpers are indiscriminately called “jackboots” throughout the whole book and almost none of them is identified by a name or some individual characteristics (contrary to many recent books and movies about the Holocaust that are indulgent in their portrayal of sadistic, demonic and somehow charismatic Nazis, while the victims don’t play an important role; the most extreme case that I know of is Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, a book that I find highly problematic – but I digress…), the prisoners of the camp in these approximately 150 pages gain an individual stature and profile. While many things we know about the camps – the selections, the arbitrary violence and killings, the role of the Prominenten and Kapos, prisoners who made themselves useful to the SS guards and became part of the system that kept the work in the camps going, the hasty evacuation and Todesmarsch (death march) from one KZ to the next, the slow physical and psychological decline of the inmates, the permanent exhaustion and starvation to name just a few -, there are several reasons why The Seventh Well stands out in comparison to other works.

The Holocaust was such a monstrous crime, the number of victims so huge, and the extermination was organized in such a bureaucratic, industrialized and cunning manner that there is a danger that the individual victims are easily forgotten. By remembering a few of them, the author/narrator gives them a face, a fate, a story to remember. These are not anonymous victims, these are people from different countries, Jews, Christians, Jehova’s Witnesses, Atheists; there are communists or other leftists; homosexuals and Russian POW’s; people with a working-class background and intellectuals. And they all struggle to keep their human dignity against all odds by acts of resistance: for example by forming a literature club, by singing an Italian opera aria or Spanish songs from the Civil War, by protecting a fellow prisoner who is in bad physical shape from discovery, by not committing suicide, by fighting to keep their younger brothers alive (the last chapter Joschko and his Brothers is particularly touching), or – by telling stories.  

The episodic character of the chapters makes it easier for the reader not to get overwhelmed by the subject matter. While some of the chapters could be stand-alone stories, others have more the character of essays. The translation of Wander’s sparse, but beautiful prose by Michael Hofmann is excellent.

I cannot say that I “enjoyed” this book – for obvious reasons.  But I am very glad that I read it. The Seventh Well is a truly humanistic book, because it helps us to remember the humanity of at least some of those who perished and suffered in the Holocaust.

A post-scriptum: In Germany, Fred Wander is probably less well-known than his (second) wife Maxie Wander, author of the celebrated interview book Guten Morgen, du Schöne (Good Morning, Beautiful), and her posthumously published diaries. He wrote also an autobiography Das gute Leben (The Good Life), which I plan to read as well – maybe for next years’ German Literature Month, who knows?

The Seventh Well

Fred Wander: The Seventh Well, translated by Michael Hofmann, Granta Books London 2009

This review is published in the framework of the 2017 edition of German Literature Month, organized again by Caroline from Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. A list with links to all published reviews by the participating bloggers can be found here.

#germanlitmonth2017

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. 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 Time Regulation Institute’ by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar

The Time Regulation Institute

Years ago, I came across the name of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar (1901-1962) for the first time. I was reading Orhan Pamuk’s book about Istanbul and Pamuk refers to Tanpinar as his most important teacher as a writer and novelist. That’s a sufficient reason to have a closer look at this author and his novel The Time Regulation Institute, first published in book form in 1962.

Tanpinar belongs to a generation of Turkish authors that grew up in the Ottoman Empire and lived through the first decades of modern Turkey with its Kemalist reforms that deeply affected every aspect of life. It is important to keep in mind that – while the book is clearly a modern novel, written by a university professor that was very familiar with modern European literature – the author was at the same time deeply rooted in the pre-modern Ottoman traditions; and the same is true for his characters in The Time Regulation Institute.

The novel is the first-person narrative of the life of Hayri Irdal, a loafer, a man who grows up in rather poor circumstances and with limited school education, but who shows at an early age a talent in repairing watches, a craft he learns at the workshop of Nuri Efendi, whose thoughts about the role of time and about how important it is to make good use of it will play an important role later in the novel.

We see Hayri Irdal being a rather weak person, with a problematic second marriage (after his first wife died early) and with children that are not really close to him. He is spending most of his time with a strange circle of friends, alchemists, spiritualists, fortune seekers, project makers. This collection of characters gives Tanpinar an opportunity to unfold his satirical talents. The first part of the novel takes place in the time before and during WWI, and this part frequently reminded me of a Karagöz performance, the Turkish version of the Commedia dell’arte; the tales of Nasreddin Hoxha came to mind as well. Not only the men are shown as objects of the author’s wit, also the female characters get their fair share of satirical treatment, particularly Hamdi’s aunt, but also his second wife and her sisters with their obsessions regarding cinema or singing.

A change of luck for Hayri happens in the moment when he gets acquainted with Doctor Ramiz, a psychoanalytic who has just returned from Vienna and who applies his newly acquired (and superficial) knowledge of modern psychotherapy to cure his patient, with analysis of dreams that the doctor “orders” his patient to have, and discussion of German-language brochures on psychoanalysis inclusive (Hayri speaks of course only Turkish). Once Hayri is released from the hospital, Doctor Ramiz introduces him to Halit Ayarci, a modern project maker who understands to utilize Hayri’s potential and who – thanks to his connections in important circles – is also able to find the funding for a revolutionary idea: the creation of the Time Regulation Institute. The institute, a (fictitious) part of the reforms in the 1920’s in Turkey is supposed to ensure that all clocks and watches in the country show the correct time, and a mechanism to ensure that – and of course also a sophisticated system of fines – is quickly developed.

A big part of the second half of the novel deals with the finding of financial backing of the project, the creation of a bureaucracy and the erection of a suitable and representative office building of the new institute, so that the big number of employees – all of them of course relatives and friends of the director, Halit Ayarci, and his deputy, Hayri Irdal – have excellent working conditions. A special task assigned to Hayri is the writing of the biography of Ahmet Zamani Efendi, an Ottoman predecessor of the idea of measuring time in the modern way; and the fact that this person never existed gives Hayri a perfect opportunity to bring his storytelling talent to good use. Too bad that a Western scholar shows up one day, who is looking for further evidence, and that on top of it, a visiting commission questions the work and the usefulness of the Time Regulation Institute…

Bureaucracies seem to have a great fascination for novelists. But while Kafka or Ismail Kadare (in his Palace of Dreams) focus on the dark, nightmarish implications of such bureaucratic institutions, Tanpinar offers his readers the satirical version, a farce. Hayri represents the old generation of people who don’t really believe in what the institute stands for, but who seize the opportunity to employ a lot of friends and relatives, or who take advantage of it in any other way; Halit Ayarci on the other hand is a ‘modern‘ character, someone who clearly understands that the institute can be an instrument to satisfy his personal ambition, and who is very clever in using his contacts in political circles to find the money and public recognition for his project. And of course, a bank and a housing project are also needed in this context…

I mentioned already that Tanpinar was very familiar with modern European literature; and I can’t help but thinking about Italo Svevo’s Zeno Cosini, or the “heroes” of the novels of Robert Walser that seem to come from the same mould as Tanpinar’s characters. Halit Ayarci and his project also reminded me a bit of the Parallelaktion, and the character of Arnheim in Robert Musil’s Man without Qualities.

What is the message of Tanpinar’s novel? Maybe this one: you cannot transform people that are deeply rooted in a medieval society into modernity just by enforcing some radical reforms, like the Kemalists did in the 1920’s and 1930’s. All these reforms will be superficial and will not change the mindset of people. Tanpinar mentions the paintings of Osman Hamdi Bey, and the tortoise of Hayri’s dervish friend is also an obvious reference to the most famous of Osman’s paintings, The Tortoise Instructor; the tortoises being a symbol for the Turkish people as seen by Osman. Can you really teach or instruct a tortoise? Tanpinar ends on a slightly more optimistic note. Hayri’s estranged son is supporting his father in the end with his construction project; and while he clearly sees his father’s limitations – and that of his surrounding -, this son who distanced himself geographically, and also by name (choosing a new name for himself), seems to look at his father with mild irony and understanding. Several generations need to pass probably until a modern Turkish society will evolve. In the meantime, Hayri, and also Turkish society in general still struggle with the Father complex that was diagnosed by Doctor Ramiz in the novel. But I am quite sure, Tanpinar had not only Turkey in mind when he wrote about bureaucracies, and about how a certain category of men is using projects like the Time Regulation Institute to re-write or plainly invent the past and turn such projects into a kind of machinery for self-promotion, generation of media attention, influence, and money. Therefore, it is easy to relate to this novel, even when the reader may not be familiar with the Turkish setting and background.

Overall, I can say that I liked and enjoyed this book very much. It is a fun read thanks to the ability of its author to combine satirical criticism, traditional ‘oriental’ storytelling, and a very accomplished use of the form of the modern novel, with an unreliable narrator. If Tanpinar had lived longer and would have had an opportunity to edit his novel more diligently, he might have cut some passages that are redundant, but that’s a very small criticism of an otherwise truly important and enjoyable book.

The translators of this edition made an obvious effort to render the author’s multi-layered style into a similarly multi-layered English. I cannot really judge the quality of the translation since I don’t know Turkish, but it was a smooth read that didn’t create any challenges for me as a reader.

Bibliographic Information:

‘The Time Regulation Institute’ by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe

Publisher: Penguin Classics

Publication Date: 2013

432 pages

ISBN: 978-0143106739

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar was a Turkish poet, novelist, literary scholar and essayist, widely regarded as one of the most important representatives of modernism in Turkish literature. In addition to his literary and academic career, Tanpınar was also a member of the Turkish parliament between 1944 and 1946.

The Istanbul Tanpınar Literature Festival (ITEF) is named in honor of Tanpınar and has been held annually since 2009. The Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar Literature Museum Library, is a museum dedicated to Turkish literature in Gülhane Park in Istanbul.  It opened in 2011.

Maureen Freely is an American journalist, novelist, professor, and translator. Born in New Jersey, Freely grew up in Turkey and now lives in England, where she lectures at the University of Warwick. She is the current President of English PEN, the founding center for PEN International. 

Her seventh novel, ‘Sailing through Byzantium,’ was chosen as one of the best novels of 2014 by The Sunday Times.  Freely is also an occasional contributor to Cornucopia; a magazine about Turkey. She is best known as the Turkish-into-English translator of Orhan Pamuk’s recent novels.

Alexander Dawe graduated from Oberlin College in 1996 with degrees in French and Classical Guitar Performance. He has translated several contemporary Turkish novels including Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s The Time Regulation Institute with Maureen Freely.  In 2010, he received the PEN Translation Fund to translate a collection of short stories by Tanpınar. He lives and works in Istanbul.

Thomas Hübner is a German-born economist and development consultant with a life-long passion for books. He lives in Chisinau/Moldova and Sofia/Bulgaria. He is also the co-founder of Rhizome Publishing in Sofia, and translates poetry, mainly from Bulgarian to German (most recently Vladislav Hristov, Germanii, Rhizome 2017). He is blogging at www.mytwostotinki.com on books and anything else that interests him.


Contempt

Riccardo and Emilia are happily married for two years in post-war Rome. While Riccardo, the intelligent and likeable, though slightly narcissistic and delusional narrator, works as a journalist writing film critics to make a living, his dream is to become a serious writer and novelist. His beautiful wife Emilia, coming from an impoverished family, dreams on the other hand of living in their own house and of creating a comfortable nest for them, something much better than the rented room in which the financially struggling couple lives. When Riccardo is offered work as a screenwriter by the film producer Battista, he decides to accept despite serious reservations. He considers this kind of work as a waste of time and talent, but since it is comparatively well paid, he can fulfil his wife’s dream and buy a small flat; at a later stage, also a car, another sign of his growing success in the eyes of society. But on his way upward in the social hierarchy, something happens to the relationship between Emilia and Riccardo: Emilia becomes reserved and grows cold toward her husband, love turns into indifference and even into hatred and contempt. Contempt is also the title of the novel by Alberto Moravia that I am reviewing here.

Moravia has been praised for his elegant prose, and I can see why, even when I read the book in German translation. The prose is flowing effortlessly, the dialogues of the tormented Riccardo who wants to find out the reason for the growing alienation between him and his wife, and Emilia sound very real and convincing. Another thing I admire especially in this book is his talent to keep the reader’s interest in a seemingly rather trivial story of alienation and estrangement between husband and wife by adding some other interesting aspects. 

Some of the issues that play a major role in the novel, are the relationship between success and money, and the real needs and wishes of people; the characters are forced to do things that are in contrast with what they really want in order to make a living, or to satisfy the (vain) dreams of their partners, or to be perceived as successful and dynamic in a capitalist society. That’s not only true for Riccardo and Emilia, but also for the other two major characters of the novel, Battista and Rheingold, a German film director who is commissioned by Battista to make a monumental movie adaptation of The Odyssey. (In Jean-Luc Godard’s film adaptation of the novel, this character is played by Fritz Lang!)

Battista and Rheingold have strongly opposing approaches to the movie and Homer’s epic. While Battista wants to produce a monumental adventure movie, Rheingold on the other hand is only interested in the psychological conflict that he sees as the reason for Odysseus (Ulysses) participation in the War of Troy, and his delayed return to Penelope. According to his Freudian reading, Odysseus participates in the war because he wants to escape an unhappy relationship: he feels not loved by his wife. For the same reason, it takes him many years to come home. While Riccardo rejects Rheingold’s in his eyes simplistic psychoanalytic approach to Homer’s work, he understands reluctantly that what Rheingold says for the relationship between Odysseus and Penelope is like a mirror regarding his own and Emilia’s relationship and the reason for the obvious alienation between the partners may be a very similar one.

While Moravia is showing us a rather bleak picture of the modern Western world, where money, success, and sex serve as substitutes for a more meaningful existence, his reference to Homer seems to say that it has in principle been always like this. Emilio’s (and Moravia’s) membership in the Communist Party may be more inspired by a vague Utopian hope of a better future than by a real wish for a social revolution or dictatorship of the proletariat. In the meantime, it is best to acknowledge the mechanisms of the inherent contradictions of capitalist society. If Riccardo would have had more time to resolve the basic conflict and predicament of his life with Emilia, it would have been best to divorce and focus his future life on what he really aspires to be, a novelist and serious author. A sudden blow of fate spares him from actively taking this decision on his own.

Moravia knew the film business well; he worked also as a script writer and met probably people very similar to those described in his novel. Contempt describes an at that time thriving film industry in Italy as he experienced it, and the picture he is painting is not a particularly flattering one. Moravia had also a house on Capri similar as the one owned by Battista in the novel, where the final crisis takes place (the Godard movie was shot partly at the Casa Malaparte, another rather famous villa on Capri). And it is also known that at the time he published Contempt, his own marriage with novelist Elsa Morante was in a crisis that ended in divorce a few years later. So, while the novel is not a strictly autobiographic one, Moravia knew about what he was writing and was able to transform this into a rather short, fascinating novel. While some other so-called “existentialist” novels have not aged very well, Contempt was a surprisingly fresh book to me, and I guess I will soon read more by this author.

A word about the movie Le Mépris by Godard, which I have mentioned above: overall a good movie in my opinion, and the fact that Godard made a few major changes compared to the novel doesn’t distract from the quality of the film. The setting, particularly the scenes at the Casa Malaparte, is next to perfect for this movie. However, I had the impression that Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance were not really the right choices for two of the major roles (while Michel Piccoli is brilliant); therefore, it is for me a good movie, but not the masterpiece it could have been with a more adequate cast of characters.

Contempt was also published in English as A Ghost at Noon.

Alberto Moravia: Contempt, translated by Angus Davidson; with an introduction by Tim Parks. New York Review Books, New York 2004

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. 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 21st Century Greatest Novels”

The BBC asked a number of well-known literary critics to name “The 21st Century greatest novels”. And just as I imagined it: all the 12 books on the top of the list are written in English!
 
That says little about “The 21st Century greatest novels”, but a lot about the state of (mono-) culture in the English-speaking countries, where hardly three percent of the published books are works translated from other languages.
© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. 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.

#germanlitmonth 2016 – Robert Seethaler: The Tobacconist

The Tobacconist (Der Trafikant) is after A Whole Life (Ein ganzes Leben) the second novel by Robert Seethaler that was published in English translation. I read it in the original German, therefore my review cannot do justice to the English translation.

The year is 1937. Franz Huchel, the main character of the book, is a 17-year-old from the Austrian countryside, who grows up as a single child of a single mother. At the beginning of the book, Franz is very much a protected child, a namby-pamby, but after the unexpected death of his mother’s wealthy lover, the days of dreaming are over: he is sent to Vienna for work. His employer, Otto Trsnjek, is also a former lover of his mother from pre-WWI days, and is running a trafik, a shop where people can buy tobacco, newspapers, stationery. Otto Trsnjek lost a leg in the war and with his shop he is a well-known presence in the neighborhood; he is teaching Franz how to properly read and understand the newspapers, but also the psychology of the different customers of the shop, and the characteristics of the different varieties of cigars they are selling (although none of the two is a smoker); and a few lessons about life in general. Otto’s tobacco shop becomes the new home of Franz, and it is from there where he learns to adapt to the big city.

With his mother Franz stays in touch via the picture postcards they are writing each other; it is from these postcards his mother learns about the major changes in Franz’ life: Franz falls in love with Anezka, a girl from Bohemia, and he gets acquainted with an old gentleman who is a regular customer of the tobacco shop: Sigmund Freud who is living nearby in the Berggasse, is buying cigars from Otto Trsnjek.

While the buxom Anezka with the charming tooth gap is awakening Franz’ sexuality and lust, the professor, who is taken in by the persistence with which the simple country boy is asking him for advice regarding his sorrows related to love and lust, is reassuring Franz. The frailness of the old professor, his fight with old age and the illness from which he is suffering since many years – the permanent pain and the problems with his jaw prosthesis are a recurring theme -, but also his frankness about how little he actually knows about the human psyche, impress Franz very much and the moment when the professor teaches him how to enjoy the smoking of a cigar on a park bench belong for sure to Franz’ most happy moments.

What would be in other times a normal coming-of-age story gets a twist because of the political events that are taking place in Austria at the time the story of Franz unwinds: 1938 is the year of the “Anschluss”, Austria is uniting with Nazi Germany, a development that is changing things forever in the lives of many people. Professor Freud is emigrating in the last moment (thanks to the organizational skills of his daughter Anna), socialists and other leftists are arrested or forced into suicide, and the tobacco shop is vandalized, and finally Otto Trsnjek is arrested by the Gestapo, a development that is seen by some neighbors with obvious glee, particularly by the rather disgusting butcher from next door, a sadistic figure as if from a play by Ödön von Horvath.

And Franz? He is still in doubt about Anezka, who appears and disappears without note on various occasions, and who displays her naked body in a “Varieté” (a kind of music hall), finally starting a relationship with a young SS officer for whom she is deserting Franz. When Franz is arrested in the tobacco shop which he is running after Otto’s death in the hands of the Gestapo, he locks the doors of the trafik because “you never know”. But when Anezka passes by the shop in March 1945, briefly before a major bombing raid, all that is left from the previous tobacco shop are some chairs and a note on which Franz had noted a dream he had, a habit he developed after Freud convinced him of the usefulness of this practice. Obviously, Franz never came back after his arrest, and it is easy to guess why.

Did I like the book? Yes, very much! There are a number of reasons for this. Seethaler writes a beautiful, elegant, effortless prose, and I hope that also the English translation will give a good idea of his stylistic abilities. As a professional actor (you can see him here in the movie Youth), Seethaler has obviously a good ear for dialogues and for the individual way of expression of each of his characters. He succeeds with very simple means to give the reader a clear indication about how each of the major figures in the book is speaking. Anezka for example comes from Bohemia, a region whose people were famous for their problems with the German umlauts, and a very few examples are already enough to have her voice practically in your ear. Another beautiful element are the postcards between Franz and his mother which in the beginning are full of platitudes but which develop into a real correspondence parallel to the process of Franz’ intellectual and sensual awakening. The atmosphere of the growing paranoia after the Anschluss, the outbursts of personal violence and sadism on a large scale of otherwise “normal” citizens that was without precedence even in Nazi Germany; the seemingly im-probable and “impossible” friendship between the simple Franz and the sophisticated Professor Freud; and the fine characterization of the inhabitants of Vienna – all this made me enjoy the book.

Franz is a hero in the typical German tradition of the simple, good-hearted, noble fool (“reiner Tor”); but contrary to Eichendorff’s Good-for-Nothing, The Tobacconist has no ending in which “everything, everything was delightful” – the exact opposite is true in this case. A Happy End is not possible in the time of Nazism.

It was particularly interesting for me to read this book for this year’s German Literature Month after I reviewed last year The Tortoises by Veza Canetti, a work that covers the same period in Vienna. Considering the recent very strong support of right-wing extremists by the voters of those political forces in Austria who represent the ugly side of the Austrian national character in the latest elections in the country, the book had also sometimes a chilling effect on me. The mentality that showed its ugly face after the Anschluss in 1938 is still existing and very widespread in Austrian society; however, the wave of successful political movements which are based on hatred of certain groups within a society is unfortunately not limited to Austria alone these days.

 

 

Robert Seethaler: Der Trafikant, Kein & Aber, Zürich 2012; The Tobacconist, Picador 2016, translated by Charlotte Collins

#germanlitmonth

(This review is part of the German Literature Month, again hosted by my two blogger colleagues Caroline@beautyandthecat, and Lizzy@lizzysiddal, who are doing a great job promoting German literature in translation since years.)

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. 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.