Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Devil Within

One of the tangible results of my summer holiday in Turkey was a big stack of books I bought in various Istanbul bookstores. Some of these books have been already reviewed here during the last weeks, including a (for me) surprisingly good crime novel.

Today I will review another book from my Turkish book pile, the novel The Devil Within by Sabahattin Ali. The book is translated in French and in German, but unfortunately (as it is so frequently the case with good books written in other languages!) not in English – although this novel is considered one of the most important books of modern Turkish literature.

Only 4% of the new books published on the British and American market are translations I read recently – and without some non-profit or non-mainstream publishers it would be even worse ! I am sure readers in these countries are as curious as people in other parts of the world – so why are most publishers failing their costumers so badly? Maybe I should write a bit about this phenomenon and its consequences (together with the fact that native English speakers frequently know no foreign language). But I digress.

The Devil Within is a partly autobiographical novel that was first published in 1940. It is the story of Ömer, a young man from the Western Anatolian province that lives now in Istanbul. He has an uninteresting job at the post office, but he rarely shows up. He got this position through an influential relative and the pittance he earns as a salary requires his presence in the office only rarely.

With much more pleasure is Ömer hanging out with his (former) student colleagues, talking about literature, politics, philosophy – and about Ömer’s theory of the Devil Inside. He is convinced that each person has a demon inside that interferes in the lives of people and prevents them from achieving their aims and real happiness. But as a reader we have the feeling that this is not serious philosophy, just vain talk of some young guys who take their talks in the various meyhane – usually paid by some journalist or writer who like to play the philanthropist and to have a crowd of devoted fans around when they make acerbic remarks about their colleagues and competitors – for something serious and erudite. The Devil Within is a novel mainly about Istanbul intellectuals in the late 1930s.

In the opening chapter, the author takes us on one of the many ferry boats that are until today such a common means of transport in Istanbul. Ömer and his friend Nihat have a discussion about their favorite topics when Ömer is spotting a girl sitting nearby to which he feels immediately attracted. By lucky circumstances, he can make the acquaintance of Macide, who is as it turns out, a distant relative. Macide is living with Aunt Emine and Uncle Garip, an impoverished couple and turns out to be a very gifted musician and a very modern and independently thinking girl.

I don’t want to give too much away of the story, but I liked Sabahattin Ali’s craftsmanship. The novel is well composed, the love story between Ömer and Macide is unfolding rather fast but convincingly. Also the other characters of the book are well developed and have depth. Most of the characters are intellectuals, a kind of elite of the Istanbul circle of writers and journalists, but Mecide (and with her probably also the reader) is not very much impressed. Her sharp intellect realizes that most people in Ömer’s circle are good mainly in three things: talking, drinking, and badmouthing their more talented colleagues. A splinter group of these intellectuals, among them Ömer’s friend Nihat and the shady Professor Hikmet dream of a vague dictatorship in the spirit of the fascist “Pan-Turanism”.

Money plays an extremely important role in this milieu – Ömer and his friends are desperately short of funds all the time. Nihat talks Ömer finally into committing a criminal and ethically disdainful act: he is blackmailing a colleague who was always very friendly to him but who “lent” some money from the cassa in a situation where he saw no other way out of a difficult family situation.

Macide, probably the most interesting character in the novel, is going through a learning process. She becomes more and more disappointed, and when Bedri, the music teacher who years ago recognized her talent as a musician, and who happens to be a long term friend of Ömer, is meeting her and Ömer, she starts to understand what she is missing in her relationship with Ömer.

The book is interesting for various reasons. The novel was a still quite new genre in Turkey when the book appeared in print. But Ali proved in his three novels to be already a master in this craft. Also the subject matter is very interesting. The book shows a generation of young intellectuals who live without a real perspective. The things they learned in university (and the Turkish universities at that time were excellent) or abroad (Ali for example had studied in Germany) prove to be useless. Despite the reforms of the founding father of modern Turkey, the old mindsets of the society were still intact, positions were distributed not according to the qualification a person had, but as a result of nepotism or even open corruption.

Macide and Bedri are rays of hope in this rather bleak picture of the Istanbul of the late 1930s. A modern, self-confident woman, and a loyal and supportive partner who shares her values and interests – that’s almost too good to be true. But I enjoyed the fact that the alleged Devil Within that is frequently just an excuse for personal weakness and laziness seems not to triumph in the end.

Sabahattin Ali was (probably) born in 1907 in Ardino (Bulgaria) and was murdered in 1948 under unclear circumstances near the Turkish-Bulgarian border. There is evidence that the author was killed by the Turkish Secret Police before he could cross the border to Bulgaria. In the last years of his life, Ali had permanent problems with censorship, arsonist attacks on the office of his journal, and he had to serve several prison sentences for his writings. Today he is considered a modern classic – and rightfully so.


Sabahattin Ali: İçimizdeki Şeytan, 1940; Le Diable Qui Est En Nous, Le Serpent á Plumes, 2008; Der Dämon in uns, Unionsverlag, Zürich 2007

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

German Literature Month

Two of my favorite blogger colleagues, Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and Lizzie  (Lizzie’s Literary Life) are hosting this year for the fourth time the German Literature Month. And I decided to join them and to participate – so you will read a lot about German literature in November on this blog.

I haven’t made up my mind which books I will review here in November. But I will let you know soon.

For more details regarding the German Lit Month, please visit Caroline’s and/or Lizzie’s Blog:

So, if you are a blogger with an interest in books and literature and if you have a place to publish your own reviews, you are invited to join. And if you are a lover of German literature without your own blog, you are invited to send your review to one of the participating blogs.

Looking forward to this interesting month!


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

Young Light

Young Light is the title of a coming-of-age novel by German author Ralf Rothmann. I enjoyed this book very much.

Julian Collien, the 12-year old protagonist, is growing up in the Ruhr region in the mid-1960s. It is the time of the Wirtschaftswunder, the period of reconstruction and economic growth in Western Germany after WWII.

Julian is living with his parents and his little sister Sophie in a mining town. Life and work is organized around the work schedule of the coal mine, where almost all the fathers are working, whereas the women follow the traditional role of mother and housewife.

Everyone is very much living in the present – hardly anyone ever speaks of the past. An old photograph of the then 12-year old father of Julian from 1936 is not the starting point for a discussion of old times, and the seemingly jocular survey of Julian’s sister if her father has killed anyone during the war, is answered with a helpless silence by the father and a verbal outburst by the mother who sends the child to its room. The tattooed numbers under the father’s armpits go not unremarked but are not a subject for further questions.

On the surface the reader has the impression that nothing spectacular is happening within the few weeks that are covered by the story. It is the end of the school year, mother and sister are going on a holiday (there is not enough money for the whole family to enjoy holiday together), the father and Julian stay at home and get along quite well. Julian has some trouble at school: he has problems with mathematics and gets beaten by the teacher (at that time still a “normal” experience) because he was unable to do his homework. In order to avoid the next beating by the teacher, Julian has an idea:

“My mother was hanging up laundry in the garden with Sophie, and I went to the bathroom, locked the door and had a pee. Then I opened the mirror cabinet, the side with my father’s things: a plastic cup, a toothbrush with a wooden handle and squashed bristles, a bottle of Irish Moss aftershave. The razor slightly rusted, but there was a new packet of blades. I pulled one out, carefully unwrapped the waxed paper and sat down at the edge of the bathtub.

Downstairs I could hear Sophie, her gleeful laughter – almost a squeaking – then little Schulz’s mouth organ, and with one edge of the blade I made a cut in the ball of my thumb, only very gently, but even that already hurt. Oron, with the tip of an enemy’s arrow in his leg, had also once operated on himself and hardly batted an eyelid. I was taking fast breaths with my mouth wide open, and kept going over the skin until the edge of the razor blade disappeared into the flesh. Now the line turned red. It was a good four centimeters long, but the blood wasn’t even running over the edge; I clenched my teeth and pressed harder, millimeter by millimeter. But I was already trembling all over, started farting and broke out in sweat. Finally, my fingers grew so tense that I had to stop.

I rinsed my hand under the tap and looked at the ball of my thumb. A nasty scratch, but not a wound. I went to the kitchen, took a match from the box and rubbed the sulphur head about inside the cut until my eyes watered. Then I put a plaster on it, wiped the bathroom floor with toilet paper and told my mother I had fallen over. At night, before going to sleep, I could feel a quiet throbbing under the bandage.

But I didn’t have fever the next morning…”

Without fever, Julian has to go to school and is pretending to have not been able to do his homework in math because of the wound. Unfortunately, he didn’t cut his right hand (he is a right-hander), and so his excuse is immediately revealed as silly and not honest; an almost funny situation – all this cunning and bravery: for nothing. But not only Julian’s teacher is violent. Also Julian’s nervous, chain-smoking mother is beating him frequently and ferociously.

Julian is not particularly close with any of his peers. There is the snooty Gorny boy, the son of the landlord, who rubs it frequently into Julian’s face that he – contrary to Julian – will attend gymnasium after the summer break. The boys at the Animal Club, an overgrown plot of land that belongs to Pomrehn, an old widower who is friendly to the children but considered as confused by most adults, accept him only when he brings them alcohol and cigarettes; and there are the boys from the Kleekamp gang, the nemesis of the miner’s housing scheme. They always do their best to bring Julian in trouble for things he hasn’t done. Marusha, the 15-year old daughter of the Gorny’s holds a strong attraction for Julian, although he seems just to begin to understand why. Gorny senior, in the meantime, a person who has a kind of creepiness about him from the very beginning of the book, turns out to be a man with pedophile and child molesting tendencies at the least. And the marriage of the parents seems also not to be without serious issues – the nature of the mother’s frequent bouts of illness are never revealed, but they might be a symptom for a failing marriage:

“Not a sound. No one in the bedroom either; the bedspread lay neatly folded on the bed and the metal alarm clock was ticking. A solitary fly scurried across the fridge of the lampshade, and I called again and knocked on the bathroom door. But it had been left ajar. The narrow window was open, and there were nylon stockings lying unwashed in the bath; every time a drop of water fell onto the lightly-coloured heap, it moved. Next to the soap dish lay a little tube of painkillers, slightly squashed; the screw top lay on the floor.

I heard my father coming up the stairs with slow, heavy steps, went onto the balcony and looked out to the garden. ‘Lollypop? Where’s Mum?’

Sophie was sitting alone on the edge of the sandbox. One of her teddies was buried up to its neck, and she looked up. Although the sun was behind her, she covered her eyes with her hand. ‘I’m not hungry.’

My father, who had heard the question, went to the kitchen and looked around. ‘Why? Where would she be?’

I shrugged. ‘Maybe in the cellar. Hanging up the laundry?’ But he didn’t answer. He threw his jacket on the sofa and called her; his voice was strangely muted. The glasses in the cabinet trembled slightly as he walked across the floorboards. In the bathroom he bent down to pick up the lid and screwed it back on the tube of tablets. Then he pushed open the door of the children’s room and placed his hands on his lips. His broad back blocked my view.

‘What’s going on?’ His voice sounded amazed, and I pushed past him. Out room was full of smoke, and my mother, slightly bent forward, was lying in Sophie’s bed. Although she was wearing her quilted dressing gown, she had pulled the cover, the one decorated with toadstools and dwarves, up to her chest, and didn’t look at us. Her head was turned to the wall, her eyes closed, and she was holding an extinguished cigarette between her fingers. There were tears, grey with eyeliner, on Sophie’s pillow.

I bent down over her. ‘What’s the matter? Did you have another colic?’

She sniffed quietly, but didn’t say anything. Her foot, which was poking out of the end of the covers, still had one of the slippers with the plush edging on it. She was wearing her pearl necklace, and I pulled the cigarette butt out from between her fingers and threw it into the bowl on the bedside rug. My father breathed out sharply through his nose and ran his hands through his hair.

‘Shall we call you an ambulance?’ She swallowed hard, again and again, as if she had something stuck in her throat. ‘What’s the point.’ She spoke quietly, almost in a whisper, and hardly moved her mouth. ‘Just let me lie here.’

My father shrugged his shoulders. He turned round and went into the kitchen, and while I took the slippers off her feet and placed them next to the bed I could hear him tinkering with the stove rings and scratching about in the coal scuttle; it was much louder than when she did it. I bent down and brushed a strand of hair from her forehead. Her skin felt dull from the spray.

‘Shall I make a hot water bottle?’ She nodded almost invisibly. Her eyelids were trembling, and I turned round to go to the bathroom – and found my father standing in the doorway again. Folds going down over the bridge of his nose. His lips so pale that I could hardly make them out from the rest of his skin, he held the half-thawed packet of spinach in his fist like a brick.

‘Now listen here…’ He went up close to the little bed. ‘If you’re not feeling well, please go to the doctor. And if there’s something wrong with your gall bladder, it’s about time you had an operation. What are hospitals for? I’m getting sick and tired of all this back and forth. When I come out of that hole where I work myself half to death for you all every day, I expect to have something to eat, you understand? Then I bloody well expect to see some food on the table!’

He was speaking more loudly than I had ever heard him speak before, and when he screamed ‘Do you understand me!’ after that, I saw his lower row of teeth, the brown gaps between them. With a kick, he sent the ashtray next to the bed flying into the corner.

But it stayed in one piece, even though it was made of glass. But the five cigarette butts inside it jumped onto the carpet. ‘And now get the hell up! If you can smoke one fag after another, you can make your family something to eat!’”

After the return of the mother and sister from Schleswig (Rothmann’s birthplace), the family is informed that they have to move out by the end of the month – Julian’s father had sex with Marusha and now Gorny is blackmailing them to leave the house.

Whereas most of the novel is told from Julian’s perspective, several short parts of the book are told in third person perspective. These paragraphs describe the work of a coal miner during his shift almost a thousand meters below the ground. While he is entering an area with water ingress, he is preparing a blasting to avoid a catastrophe; in the end it seems that the miner has an accident, possibly a fatal one. But it is left unsolved what exactly happened and who the miner was – although he was looking briefly on his Kienzle watch with the broken glass, exactly the same as Julian’s father is wearing.

What strikes me about the novel is first of all the language. Rothmann avoids the trap in which so many writers of autobiographical novels are falling.

Julian, from whose perspective most of the novel is told, is not looking back with an affectionate, transfigured view. He reports the things as he sees them and in a rather unemotional, almost a bit detached way. Before his mother starts to beat him with the wooden cooking spoon, he turns up the music of the radio a bit because he knows from experience that he will cry and he doesn’t want the Gorny’s downstairs to hear it.

Julian’s world is a quite unkindly one: he cannot remember to have ever embraced or kissed his mother; when he wants to hold his father around his waist while riding on the back seat of his bicycle, his father is reprimanding him. Only with his little sister Sophie who is sometimes a pain in the ass but mostly very cheerful and charming, he is embracing and kissing.

Most other children and almost all adults are aggressive, rude, malicious – with very few exceptions: there is Pomrehn, who behind his rather tattered and disheveled appearance is a kind and even wise person; the catholic priest, who is on the one side rather strict with the children but who tries to talk Julian out of his feeling of guilt when he is confessing his alleged sins; Marusha, who is beside her rather aggressive and provocatively displayed sexuality, talking to Julian as a friend and confidante; and there is a man he sees on TV who is talking so differently from all other people in Julian’s surroundings.

The man is using expressions that resonate well in Julian and that make him want to know who this man, a writer, really is; a man who is speaking in a serious voice which betrays his soft Cologne accent. Unfortunately for Julian, he will not know the name of the man with the sad eyes and the bulbous nose – not this time that is. But we readers witness an important formative moment in Julian’s life: for the first time he realizes that words can be a means to express important things, feelings, opinions that matter. And Heinrich Böll, the unnamed writer that is so easy to recognize from Rothmann’s description, is the one who made this happen.

Since we can assume that Rothmann is describing his own childhood and the end of it in Julian’s story, we can understand what an impact this moment possibly had on the author. Rothmann worked as a mason, driver, cook and in various other jobs before he started his career as a writer. Among the many literary awards he received, is ironically also the Heinrich Böll Award of the City of Cologne.

What I also have to praise is that Rothmann is an intelligent and conscious narrator. He is a few years older than me but I also grew up in a coal mining town in Germany that resembles very much the unnamed place of Julian’s childhood. When I read the book, it was sometimes almost as if I have a flashback to my own childhood, so precise to the last detail is Rothmann’s book when he describes the catholic, proletarian and petty bourgeois milieu of the coal miners of the Ruhr (or in my case: Saar) region,

In the end we see Julian preparing to move to a new place with his family. He has lost a few illusions about his parents, his peers, about adults and maybe life in general. But he will keep the picture of the writer in his mind and will try to find out more about him in the library one day. And he will also remember the words of Pomrehn, who once said to him:

“When you have chosen freedom, nothing can ever happen to you. Never. “

Young Light is one of the best coming-of-age novels I ever read. 

Young Light

Ralf Rothmann: Young Light, translated by Wieland Hoban, Seagull Books, Calcutta 2010 

Seagull Books, an Indian publisher, has become one of the best addresses for translated literature in the English-speaking world. They do pioneer work to make important German, Italian, French and African authors available for the anglophone book market. Seagull publisher Naveen Kishore was awarded the Goethe medal in Weimar in 2013 in recognition of his important work.

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

Michael Ondaatje and Miroslav Penkov will read in Sofia

For those readers of the blog who are in Sofia next Friday, I have a quite interesting event to announce.

One of the most famous and best contemporary authors, Michael Ondaatje, comes to town. The author of The English Patient, Running in the Family and other excellent books is accompanied by English-writing Bulgarian-American author Miroslav Penkov – I reviewed the latter’s first brilliant book East of the West here not long ago.

You can meet the two authors, who will read, answer questions and sign books at the Helikon Bookstore, Bul. Tsar Osvoboditel 4 (that’s opposite the Russian Church), on Friday, 26 September, at 18.00. The event is organized by the Publishing House Lachezar Minchev and is supported by the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

Don’t miss it in case you are around!

Patient Hardcover 2013 Jacket CDR 15 Final 2


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


The Saloniki Incident of 1876 triggered a major diplomatic crisis in Europe: a Bulgarian girl had converted to Islam, was later kidnapped by a Christian mob when she came to Saloniki and this enraged the fury of the local Muslim community. When the French and German consuls tried to calm down the tension by negotiating with the angry Muslims, they were assaulted and bludgeoned to death by the crowd. The countries that had a diplomatic presence in the Ottoman Empire protested and threatened with serious consequences. The Ottoman Government, in a constitutional crisis and amid the clouds of a coming war with Russia and with a bad press regarding the treatment of the Balkan Christians, complied and got the ringleaders arrested and executed – under the watchful eye of a contingent of French and British soldiers that had arrived on board of several warships in the port of Saloniki.

One of the French officers on board was a 26-year old Julien Viaud, who was soon enchanted by the Orient as he experienced it in Saloniki (then a multi-cultural city with only a small Greek population that was outnumbered by its Turkish, Albanian, Bulgarian and Jewish inhabitants) and later in Constantinople. He kept a diary in which he wrote down his experiences, impressions and general remarks. This diary is the basis of the book he later published anonymously under the title Aziyadé. The alleged diarist of the book is a British marine officer called Loti. It was the name under which his author came to great fame – Viaud/Loti became one of the most popular authors of his times and he had a deep impact on Marcel Proust.

Aziyadé consists of many short chapters. Loti is describing how he got acquainted with the Circassian girl Aziyadé who is married with a much older wealthy Turk who is most of the time away on business, while his harem is looking for distractions elsewhere. (Although moral was very strict and affairs of married women were very risky for them, they seem to have been a quite frequent occurrence, according to Loti). The seemingly impossible happens, Aziyadé becomes Loti’s mistress and is living with him part of the time in a house he has rented in the district of Eyoub. Together with his two loyal servants Samuel and Achmet, who become his close friends, and a cat, the lovebirds live for some time a perfectly happy life, which is permanently threatened by the possible departure of Loti, who as an officer has to follow the orders of his superiors.  The diary form of the book is loosened by the letters Loti is exchanging with his sister and a few friends.

What makes the book interesting beside the romantic love story of Loti and Aziyadé is the fact that Loti who “goes local” (he learns Turkish, wears Turkish dress and spends his days like a true Ottoman), has a very attentive eye and a language to express the many interesting details he shares with us.

Observations about politics, for example how his neighbors react to the news that the Ottoman Empire has adopted a modern constitution, or about the brewing crisis with Russia, are followed by interesting insights into the domestic life of the locals or the organization of a Turkish household. We learn why the inhabitants of Constantinople had to go out with a lamp, about life in the harem, about the different religious groups, about cemeteries, and even about Aziyadé’s shoes – nothing is too small for Loti as not to use it for interesting reflections. His language – as far as I can judge from the translation – is refined and elegant and pleasant to read.

If Viaud/Loti describes a really autobiographical experience is not sure. Edmond de Goncourt, known for his malicious tongue, wrote that the mistress of the author was indeed a “mister”, and Gide and Cocteau made later similar remarks. But for the reader it doesn’t really matter.

Loti is not widely read anymore and he got labeled an “Orientalist” by Edward Said. But I found this book a very pleasant surprise. It is remarkably fresh, interesting and easy to read. You might give it a try yourself.


Pierre Loti: Aziyadé, translated by Marjorie Laurie, Amphora, Istanbul 2006

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

This is a modern world

Recently I read somewhere that a publisher wants to reissue some classics in a more modern and contemporary form. I guess that means Dante’s Inferno featuring the guy that invented the “Latte to Go”, side by side with the man that first had the idea for the pizza with mayo and ketchup.


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

A ‘manly’ book by a ‘manly’ author

After a long hiatus, I read these days my first Hemingway book since many years: Fiesta – The Sun Also Rises.

We all know – or we think to know – Ernest Hemingway, even if we had not read any of his books; of all 20th century authors, he was arguably the most successful in creating a worldwide public image of himself, the brand “Hemingway”: a manly man keeping himself busy doing manly things (or things he thought were proof of his manliness). And when he was not busy hunting the biggest game, fishing the biggest fish, fighting the most dangerous bull, reporting from the most dangerous war front lines, downing the biggest amount of booze or courting the most attractive women (all the things you seem to have to do when you want to keep a show of being a manly man), he was hammering in a creative outburst with great energy all these outstanding manly novels and stories written in his trademark manly style into his typewriter, preferably stripped down to the waist and with a hard drink and a photographer at hand to distribute this image of the most manly author on earth and his hairy chest to all his readers and non-readers.

I never quite understood what’s exactly so manly about killing animals just for the fun and show-off, or what’s exactly so manly about being a third-degree alcoholic always on the border of a drunken stupor, or what’s exactly so manly about blowing your own brain out with a shotgun. What I quite understood somehow from the first time I came across Hemingway was that this was an author who had a serious issue with his own manliness (or possibly the lack thereof).

Many authors are a bit weird, or have issues, and some of the most talented writers were outright lunatics. So I am not holding this image and ridiculous and narcissistic show of manliness of the person Hemingway against his writing. A book is very frequently more perfect, even more intelligent than its author. We should never judge a book or any other piece of art based on personal sympathy or antipathy for the creator of this artwork. But in some cases, the defaults and flaws of the author show also in the artwork, and then the personality of the author becomes an issue. Fiesta – The Sun Also Rises is in my opinion such a case.

Some American and British expats, mostly wealthy heirs or people with artistic ambitions, mingle in the Paris of the mid 1920s. Life is pretty cheap after the war and Paris is a permissive city with a famous nightlife that made it so attractive for foreigners with hard currency. Paris was the place to be when you were a young heterosexual writer or journalist or when you were just looking for fun (Babylon Berlin was the obvious choice for the less mainstream-oriented faction).

Jake Barnes, the narrator, is a young journalist. His friend, the writer Robert Cohn, starts a relationship with the attractive and promiscuous heiress Lady Brett (two times divorced and planning another rich marriage) with whom also Barnes is in love.

Barnes, who was a soldier at the Italian front in WWI got seriously wounded and as a result is emasculated. Brett seems to love him nevertheless, but since her appetite cannot be fulfilled by Barnes, she starts a relationship with Cohn, and later in Spain where the group is traveling together with some other friends, Bill Gorton and Brett’s fiance Mike Campell, to watch a bullfight, she is seducing a very young bullfighter, Romero.

During the fiesta, the whole group gets drunk and starts to attack Cohn with anti-Semitic remarks. Cohn, who used to be an amateur boxer in college starts a fistfight and is beating up his opponents. After everyone is sober again, the group is quickly dispersing. Barnes receives a message from Lady Brett to come to Madrid, where she had gone with Romero. He finds her penniless in a cheap hotel. She is informing Jake that she intends to return to her fiance.

A quite interesting scenario I have to admit. The chapters are short. The sentences are very short. The book is a very fast read. In some scenes Hemingway shows that his craftsmanship can be excellent, especially when he describes the fiesta, the bullfight that he loved (and that I detest) so much. The book gives in some good moments a clear idea why Hemingway is such a highly revered author in the opinion of many readers.

And yet, I had more than one moment while I read the book, when I got so angry with Hemingway’s writing that I threw the book in disgust at the wall of my room.

As I mentioned, the book consists mainly of very short, childlike sentences. Subject-predicate-object. Subject-predicate-object. Subject-predicate-object. And so on and on, over pages and pages. I simply don’t like it. It does not have to be always the long and winding sentences of a Thomas Mann novel, but there is a thing called syntax and from time to time it would be just nice if the author would give us some sentences that are not written in this childlike style. “Do you have emotionsStrangle them.” This ironic Saul Bellow word about Hemingway’s style sounds very convincing to me after I read Fiesta.  In short, when I read a book labeled “novel”, I want indeed read a novel and not a text that reads more like a film script most of the time, even when the author is the manly Hemingway.

Jake Barnes is not the most endearing narrator. Already on the first two pages he does everything to depict Cohn – who he claims is his friend – in the most disgusting and unsympathetic way.  And even more, Barnes is using the most primitive anti-Semitic stereotype when it comes to paint Cohn in the most negative color. Describing Cohn’s talent for boxing, Barnes tells us (in one of the early passages before Hemingway falls back to his favorite style):

“He was really very fast. He was so good that Spider promptly overmatched him and got his nose permanently flattened. This increased Cohn’s distaste for boxing, but it gave him a certain satisfaction of some strange sort, and it certainly improved his nose.”

Ah yes, Jews have crooked noses, hahaha – maybe in Hemingway’s eyes that was funny, but I find it only revolting. Similarly disgusting, or even worse are the insults that are thrown at Cohn during the fiesta by the others.

The same goes also for the image of women in the book. Lady Brett, although obviously a really attractive woman, is described as a very promiscuous but also cunning and calculating woman. She takes the men she wants, but she is marrying of course only for the money and wealth that it provides. All this talk about love and feelings is just talk, and her attraction to Barnes may be so strong because she knows she can never have him; the curiosity factor, you know. Barnes is a man only in appearance, but contrary to Cohn, Romero, and all the others, he is physically unable to satisfy her. The other women in the book, for example the French girl Georgette, are called poulet (chicken), and they are ready for the men’s consumption – IF you are a real man that is. I think the misogyny of the narrator is beyond question.

This mix of anti-Semitic and misogynistic stereotypes, together with the display of narcissism and self-pity of the narrator got on my nerves. It got on my nerves to an extent that I had to force myself to finish this repelling book.

OK, we should not necessarily identify the views of the narrator with the views of the author. Frequently authors put an unreliable narrator in charge or even one with whose opinions they completely disagree. But considering the autobiographical background of the story, we can dismiss this idea in this case.

Unfortunately this is a book written by a young author in Paris who was wounded in WWI, who drank his time away, got involved in the love triangle he describes in the novel. Hemingway’s affair and the story of the book are (almost) identical – with the important difference that Hemingway was emasculated by his alcohol abuse in later years, and not by a WWI wound.  Hemingway’s main rival was Harold Loeb, a Jewish author and journalist, who was obviously not only the better boxer than Hemingway in real life, but also the better lover. As a reader we can feel, that Hemingway’s and Barnes’ opinions regarding Jews, women, boxing, bullfighting, and a lot of other things are identical. And it is not good when an author writes a book that is “too close to home.”

Spiteful, misogynistic and full of anti-Semitic stereotypes, written in a childlike style. That is Fiesta, by Ernest Hemingway. I know that’s a harsh verdict but I am here to give you my honest opinion for what it’s worth.

I am afraid the next manly Hemingway book has to wait for a long time to be read and reviewed by me.

P.S.: As for stereotypes, I almost forgot it – but it adds to the bleak picture; Hemingway’s characters (much as the author himself, as we know from his letters) have also strong opinions about non-whites. The infamous N word is used exclusively to characterize black people, who in general have no individual name.

Examples: an Afro-American jazz musician is described like this by the narrator:

“The n(…) drummer waved at Brett…. ‘Hahre you?’ ‘Great.’ ‘Thaats good.’ He was all teeth and lips.”

Yes, just like Jews have crooked noses, blacks are “niggers”, cannot speak proper English and have thick lips and shiny teeth in Hemingway’s world. But it gets even worse when the narrator meets a friend who was placing a bet on a black boxer in Vienna:

‘Remember something about a prize-fight. Enormous Vienna prize-fight. Had a n(…) in it. Remember n(…) perfectly.’ ‘Go on.’ ‘Wonderful n(…). Looked like Tiger Flowers, only four times as big. All of a sudden everybody started to throw things. Not me. N(…)’d just knocked local boy down. N(…) put up his glove. Wanted to make a speech. Then the local boy hit him. Then he knocked white boy cold. Then everybody commenced to throw chairs. N(…) went home with us in our car.’

And so on. Fifteen times the N word on less than one page. I don’t want to be politically correct but Hemingway’s characters in this book are without exception extremely racist, shallow and uninteresting people. Why do I have to follow this story of a bunch of drunkards that are described without any depth in a staccato language that makes every dialogue from a soap opera in comparison sound like high literature? Just because his characters share the author’s own unsupportable opinions about race, Jews, drinking, women and bullfighting?

Thanks, but no, thank you.


Ernest Hemingway: Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, Arrow Books, London 2004

Other reviews:
101 Books  

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

“Terror is stronger in us than delight”

The wooden ship is the talk of the town. When the beautiful large three-master arrives at the unnamed port (maybe Hamburg, the author’s home city), the citizens are more than a bit puzzled. The wooden ship is all teak and oak and it looks much too elegant to be an ordinary freighter. (Hans Henny Jahnn, the author of The Ship, was not only a famous organ-builder but also the son of a ship carpenter, which helped him to make the description of the ship so convincing.)

Unknown cargo is unloaded, the owner is dismissing the crew and leaving just two guards (with whom he drinks almost every night on the ship). After a while a new crew is hired and under the supervision of a person who is referred to as the Supercargo – later we learn that his real name is Georg Lauffer – , the new cargo is being carried to the ship without further investigation by the customs.

And here, at the latest, it dawns on the reader that something must be wrong with the ship: neither the content of the coffin-shaped crates nor the destination of the ship are known to the crew or even the captain, and during the process of carrying the crates it comes to an eruption of violence from the side of the Supercargo. The reasons why he lets part of the crew to be beaten up are not exactly clear, but as a result part of the sailors are dismissed and replaced by seamen who will not ask questions and who will stay away from the mysterious cargo.

These events give the author an opportunity to make the reader familiar with his opinions about life in general:

“A human being who has suffered a disappointment turns to the laws of physics. A child who has just burned himself with a glowing red ember, tries, cautiously, to see if a stick of red sealing wax will injure him in the same way. And if Providence intends to give him a thorough knowledge of life, she lets him make the same test at regular intervals. And perhaps he will gain the knowledge that the red stuff—which is apparently always the same—is sometimes hot, and sometimes cool. And a small corner of the veil of What Happens if lifted. He looks into the abyss of causality and can see the face of time as a reflection of eternity. Certainty becomes questionable, the riddle more powerful than knowledge. He will no longer trust the chance that might burn him.”

“And a wave of primitive remembrance came over them, the beginning of all thought and its magical expiration, which came out of the darkness of the room. Laws, still unclear which must therefore have been repealed. Metals, malleable as wax, melted in fire and not congealed. Wood as pliable as a reed. Bodies that have no weight, no face. Stones that can float. Magnetic mountains. A reversal of the senses. The vast kingdom of the unreliable.”

“The lights were on in the great sky dome, flickering in infinite space. Their cold glow, uplifting the heart or destroying it, conveyed the deceptive marvel of edifying ideas. Millions of human beings—and who knows if the animals don’t do the same thing—look up at the night with uncomprehending eyes and turn inward to a forlorn or frightened breast, their own. They see themselves as chosen or rejected. Or what is far away is as far away for them as it pretends to be. It does not penetrate the miasma of their martyred blood. And then again storms spread their noise across the vapors of the earth. Now it was the gleaming dew of loneliness that trickled down upon it.”

“Just as the pit of a mine was a hollow amid rock, a ship was a hole in the water in which lungs could breath. A human being had to fear mountains and water.”

“The conclusion is inescapable that he must have been jammed into the space or sucked up. The wall has to be there.”

“We have witnessed the horrible again and again, a transformation no one could foresee. A healthy body is run over by a truck, crushed. Blood, once secreted, once feeling its way blindly through the body, pulsating in a meshwork of thin streams, spreading the chemically charged hormones and their mysterious functions like a red tree inside man—this blood now runs out shapelesssly in great puddles. And still no one grasps that, in a network of veins, it has form. But even more horrible—the death struggle itself, in which the innumerable organs, which we believe we feel, take part. Terror is stronger in us than delight.”

“The miracles of life turn out to be preparation for a gigantic disillusionment and at the end stands old age. Extraordinary things are nothing but steps that lead to crime, and the corruption of the senses seems to be the order of the day.”

“When we begin to think… we are more naked than at birth and more helpless. And we are strangled in the noose of the shriveling umbilical cord.”

The captain of the ship, Waldemar Strunk, is bringing his daughter Ellena on board, because he doesn’t want to leave her alone at home. Her fiance Gustav Horn decides to come on board as a stowaway. When the ship is leaving port, the owner is mysteriously missing, and Gustav and Ellena are suspecting that for some unknown reason the owner might also be on board as a stowaway.

The ship is becoming more and more a mystery to the passengers and the crew. While Ellena and Gustav are in Ellena’s cabin, they realize that the lock is not working properly, and thus the secret of Gustav is uncovered by the Supercargo. After it is officially known that Ellena’s fiancee is on board, Gustav is walking around on board and makes the acquaintance of the crew. Some characters, like the cook, the ship’s carpenter Klemens Fitte, and the youngest sailor Alfred Tutein (who whispers on several occasions “Danger!” into Gustav’s ear) are introduced more closely. Between Gustav and Tutein there seems to grow a strange mutual attraction, although we readers can only guess the nature of this obvious attraction.

Gustav, the main figure of the novel, is listening full of fascination to the stories of the primitive, vital and virile sailors. This is a simple world where the men are following their animal instincts, a world that is completely new to the educated Gustav.

“And he discovered that he was inferior to these men. They had had experience in every direction. At fourteen they had already mistaken the joys of Hell for the bliss of Paradise, and, later, stood again and again with empty hands in a completely illuminated world . . . Gustave envied them, not for their miserable experiences, but for the particular smell of reality which would never be his because he didn’t have the courage, wasn’t sufficiently carefree, to let himself be torn to shreds for no good reason.”

At the same time, some process of estrangement seems to take place between Gustav and Ellena, who is meeting the Supercargo several times without Gustav’s knowledge. Gustav becomes jealous when he realizes that his fiancee has secret conversations with Lauffer, because he is suspecting that there is much more to them than Ellena wants to make him believe.

“‘You are suffering,’ she said simply. ‘Why?’

‘I can present my parables in a different connection or in a different order,’ he said. ‘Millions of ears hear the magical sound of universal sadness, true or false, and fall prey to it. There exists only one pain, one passion, on death. But they glitter limitlessly in infinity, in motion everywhere. And every ray, the known and the unknown, hums this consuming rhythm, this melody of downfall. He who lays himself open to it founders, goes up in flames, succumbs. Perhaps the greatest work of art is the masterpiece of omnipotence which is everywhere with a soft voice. And we, its servants, are being summoned to all things at every moment. But often we refuse. We shut ourselves off. But when are we so completely healthy or invulnerable that pain cannot reach us? When could we call ourselves out of the reach of death? Where is there peace and justice, a condition without condemnation, that we could let sadness go from us with impunity?’

‘That is a theory of how suffering spreads on this earth, from the stars or from somewhere or other.’

‘But I don’t want it that way,’ he said. ‘I want to experience everything but I want to remain as virtuous as matter, which is unaware of its own manifestations. I want to stand at my own side when I scream or sink to the ground in convulsions. I am not prepared to let myself be put on trial as to whether I am a useful or an objectionable male animal. I have come into being and intend to make myself at home in the condition as I please. I don’t escape the voice, I swing and twitch with it, but I don’t want to feel it as everybody else feels it.’

‘You are crying.’ The words come from her forced.

‘I know,’ he said. ‘But it doesn’t mean anything to me.’ “

Things are escalating quickly after the illiterate carpenter Klemens Fitte, the son of a prostitute, is telling one of the strangest stories you will ever read in your life: the story of Kebad Kenya, a man who wants to be buried alive and who makes his neighbors who will inherit his big fortune kill his favorite horse without any apparent reason.

“After all, it was his intention to die without the help of death, and the effort to become motionless and cold took every ounce of his vigilance and strength.”

The story of Kebad Kenya leads the sailors to suspect that the coffin-shaped crates contain dead (or living) human bodies and they rush to break into the cargo room and open the first crate that proves surprisingly to be empty.

Ellena disappears suddenly after a visit at the Supercargo’s cabin. Is she hiding in the ship? Has she jumped over board? Was she killed – and by whom? A search is started during which the ship is so damaged that it is sinking and the crew has to be evacuated. Most of them will be saved by an approaching ship, but Ellena’s fate remains a secret and mystery.

“Then it was over. They climbed across the cargo toward the door by which they had entered. Gustav, in a last effort to come closer to the content of the cargo, threw himself down on one of the coffin-like crates. He made the effort, even if with dwindling will power and filled with a premonition of futility, to establish some sort of relationship with the mysterious thing. It seemed foolish to him, an error of human perception, that anything could remain hidden which could be approached until only a few centimeters lay between. But it was the usual thing to be struck with blindness. Who could recognize the sickness of his neighbor with his eyes even though it lay palpable under the skin? When Gustav arose from the crate a few seconds later, he had assured himself that the icy aura which filled the hold had infected the crates or, perhaps, they were its sources. He felt as if he had thrown himself down on the snows of a wintry field. And a white wraith of cold crept up to him.”

This lengthy synopsis doesn’t answer the question what happened to Ellena because The Ship (the title should be The Wooden Ship – in German it is Das Holzschiff and not Das Schiff) is just the overture to a true monster of a novel. Fluss ohne Ufer (River Without Banks) has about 2500 pages of which only the first part is translated into English.

True, The Ship is a stand-alone novel. But still it is such a pity that this great and in many ways unique novel is not available in English. (It has been translated to French though).

It’s author, Hans Henny Jahnn, was a unique figure, and the book is unlike any other book you will come across during your life. In a way, it is devastating and it might be one of these books that have the potential to change your life.

In Jahnn’s world there is no God, no metaphysics. Traditional concepts of moral, guilt, progress, are rejected. Man is not superior to the rest of the creatures, the animal is his equal and in many ways even superior. (Jahnn was an early advocate of animal rights and also a leading figure in the movement against nuclear arms).

That Jahnn’s novels, plays and stories are full of controversial topics like sado-masochism, homo- and bi-sexuality, incest and others that will repel a part of the readership, did not exactly help his popularity. But this is a pity, because despite all that, Jahnn is such a great author. Other reasons why Jahnn is not popular were given by literary critic Ulrich Greiner in his essay “The seven deadly sins of Hans Henny Jahnn”. He writes:

“There is no consolation. “It is what it is, and it is terrible.” No God is conceivable, enlightenment a fiasco, reason only a flatus vocis, progress a catastrophic joke. No matter in which direction Jahnn thinks, no matter which ways his painful heroes are pursuing, no matter which vision is lighting up in the moment: the aporia is indissoluble, the novel cannot be concluded, the artistic effort a failure. At the end, there is only darkness. That leaves a bitter taste. This is not very digestible.”

Many of the mysteries of The Ship are uncovered in the untranslated part of River Without Banks. Where is the publisher that makes this masterpiece that has no similarity to any other novel, available to anglophone readers?

I intend to return later to the untranslated part of the novel.


Hans Henny Jahnn: The Ship, translated by Catherine Hutter, Peter Owen 1970

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