Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner (translated from the original German by Michael Hofmann)

Title:  Blood Brothers (original German title Youth on the Road to Berlin)
Author:  Ernst Haffner
Translator:  Michael Hofmann
Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2015)
ISBN: 978 15905 1704 8
Haffner_BloodBrothersFinalA galley arrives in my mailbox proclaiming itself “BANNED BY THE NAZI PARTY” in bold letters across the cover – as if the Nazi Party were still in the business of banning anything or anyone. The announcement doesn’t appear on the cover of the finished book, which is unfortunate as it provides a historical context for Ernst Haffner’s only known novel* – a book that seems to have come out of a 19th century “muck-raking” literary tradition rather than the years between the two World Wars.

Set during the waning days of the Weimar Republic, Blood Brothers was first published in 1932.  Adolf Hitler will be appointed German Chancellor a year later.  The economy, already being crushed under the weight of WWI reparation payments, will be devastated by the U.S. stock market crash of 1929.  (The Weimar government had received huge loans from the United States and, when faced with their own financial crisis, the U.S. called those loans in).  And by 1932 between five & six million Germans will be unemployed.

All over Germany, but particularly in the cities, boys & young men ranging from age 14-18 formed gangs in order to survive. In Berlin these gangs were surprisingly well organized – each holding a specific territory (divided into “Rings”)  and conforming to a rigidly structured hierarchy led by a “Ring Bull”.   This organization is only loosely hinted at by Haffner – he prefers to focus on the correlation between the youths and vagabonds. We are introduced to the Blood Brothers of the title as they stand in line at the welfare office. They’re not there for aid. They have no papers and if they’re caught by the authorities they’ll be sent to youth detention facilities until they come of age.

The eight boys were able to capture a whole bench and serenely oblivious to the numbers, they drop off to sleep. They’ve spent the whole endless winter’s night on the street. As so many times before: homeless. Always trudging on, always on the go. No chance of any shut-eye in this weather. Day-old remnants of snow, the occasional thin shower of sleet, everything nicely shaken up by a wind that makes the boys’ teeth chatter with cold. Eight boys, aged sixteen to nineteen. A few are veterans of borstals (detention centers). Two have parents somewhere in Germany. The odd one perhaps still has a father or mother someplace. Their birth and early infancy coincided with the war and the years after. From the moment they undertook their first uncertain steps, they were on their own. Father was at the Front or already listed missing. Mother was turning grenades, or coughing her lungs out a few grams at a time in explosives factories. The kids with their turnip bellies – not even potato bellies – were always out for something to eat in courtyards and streets. As they grew older, gangs of them went out stealing. Stealing to fill their bellies. Malignant little beasts.

The Blood Brothers are led by Jonny.  A sympathetic and likeable character, in the early chapters he is shown taking care of his crew – spending what little money the gang has on food and a place where they can sleep unmolested. He organizes the boys – making sure they move around the city in pairs so as not to attract attention. At this point in the story their focus is on the basic necessities of survival and Jonny is more a protective big brother figure and less a criminal Fagin.

This will change as Jonny and the Blood Brothers, under the guidance of Jonny’s lieutenant Fred, discover the benefits of a criminal lifestyle.  Only two members, Willi & Ludwig (who are, notably, sepearted from the gang when it begins organized pick-pocketing), remain unconvinced and determined to leave the gang. These two pairs of boys serve as moral contrasts – demonstrating the two paths available. The tone of the book, though, is not moralistic.  Haffner doesn’t judge, instead he laments the society that allows these boys to slip though the cracks.  Though “lament” may be too strong of a word.  Blood Brothers is written in the odd, yet incredibly effective, style of a newsreel voice over.  Or a YA novel.  The gangs’ crimes range from prostitution & petty theft, to pick-pocketing and eventually breaking & entering – all described in a hearty narrative voice. I couldn’t get the word “sanitized” out of my mind.  For example: Willi & Ludwig, out of desperation, sell themselves to two rich men.  Men who, “Along with their silk-lined tuxes…stripped off their manners. What was left were two scrawny little men whose wallets allowed them to buy young healthy, if half-starved, boys”.  The next morning when the boys wake the men are gone.  ‘Details of the night just past swim into the boys’ consciousness. “Yuck!” says Ludwig. “Yes, it makes me feel sick. Never again…”‘ They then proceed to go out for breakfast and plan their future – the episode entirely forgotten.

There’s a lot to recommend Blood Brothers.  It reads like a first hand account of the economic conditions in Germany that allowed the Nazi Party to come to power. For anyone interested in the Hitlerjugand and their counterparts, the Edelweiss Pirates (an underground youth movement that fought for the Allies) it has that added layer.  In addition, Blood Brothers is extremely entertaining and easy to read.  Haffner shows real empathy for these boys’ situation.  There are elements of adventure, suspense and – perhaps most important – a sense of hope.  Hope that these boys are victims of a broken system and not inherently bad. Despite the events that we know loom over Germany’s, and the boys’, future – events that Haffner had no knowledge of when writing the book – we are left incongruously hoping that everything will still work out.

*Very little is known about Ernst Haffner – some believe he was a social worker.  A critic reviewing Blood Brothers at the time of its original publication refers to him as a journalist.  We know that the book was critically and popularly successful when first published.  That it was burned by the Nazis a year later and that Haffner & his publisher were called before the Cultural Ministry.  That is where the trail ends. No picture exists.  No record of whether he survived the war.  The only reference I found of him was a chapter in a 1980 book (written in German) on the youth gangs: Wilde Cliquen : Szenen e. anderen Arbeiterjugendbewegung by Hellmut Lessing & Manfred Liebel  and I’m not sure if it’s a excerpt from the novel or a separate article entirely.

Two Short Works of Non-Fiction by Readux Books

Whether or not you subscribe to the theory that the digital age is creating an ADD society (there was a great article about this last month in The Guardian) time is at a premium in today’s world and there’s no arguing the attractions of shorter fiction.   Earlier this year I ran a series of posts featuring bloggers discussing why they love – or hate – short stories.  Novellas are also growing in popularity. Readux Books, the new publisher based in Berlin, has hit the sweet spot somewhere between the two with the release of their first collection of books this past October.

A lot of care has obviously gone into the making and launching these books.  Each is approximately 5,000 to 10,000 words – a length Readux feels is in keeping with “reading habits in the digital era, without room for slack, but that is long enough to allow complex themes to be developed.”  The gorgeous, brightly colored paperback covers referencing the German Expressionists.  The writing is experimental – of the four books, three are translations – yet accessible.   Readux has obviously made clever choices and taken some calculated chances in the planning stages.    And while each of the four books is sold individually, they share common themes, ideas and a consistent packaging that had me coveting them for my bookshelves.  This careful curating reminds me of some of my favorite independent publishers: New Directions, Open Letter and Other Press.

The two non-fiction titles are memoirs about life in Berlin, written from two different periods in the city’s history.  Yet, the Berlin described appears remarkably unchanged despite an 85 year gap in the timeline.  The changes in writing styles are much more drastic.  Franz Hessel’s In Berlin: Day and Night in 1929 lacks the post-modern trappings of City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write About Berlin (written by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in 2013).  The former is a period piece that is similar to Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories.  Not surprising, as both he and Hessel lived in Berlin at the same time.  It’s not unthinkable that they would even have traveled in the same circles.

Hessel was a Jewish editor, author and translator.  He was a member of the German artist community.  His complicated marriage to the journalist Helen Grund inspired Henri Pierre Roche’s novel Jules et Jim (which, in turn, inspired the 1962 François Truffaut film of the same name).  Eventually, he would flee Germany for France and he and his son would be sent to an internment camp.  He died in 1941, the same year he was released from the camp.

But here Hessel is writing about the heady days before the tragedy of WWII.  His descriptions of Berlin and its citizens are frenzied and entertaining.  In Berlin is an all too brief excerpt of what I believe must have been a longer piece in which we readers get to follow Hessel and his companions as they drift between cabarets, parties and clubs. We meet the German equivalent of Flappers and get a taste of the sexually progressive atmosphere that permeated the city at that time.  The sharp, witty prose style is characteristic of Lois Long’s column for the New Yorker during the same period.

… Gert and Maria deliberate on what else we could undertake to do. “Why don’t you young people go upstairs and dance?” I ask.  “I don’t want to,” says Maria, “but maybe Gert would find some companionship in the Blaue Salon.” “Actually I was supposed to stop in to Ambassadeurs today at midnight.”” In my inexperience, I am informed that this is the newest extension of the Barberina.  Gert and Maria then discuss the quality of the various jazz bands and tango groups in the big hotels, in the Palais am Zoo, in the Valencia, etc.  I somewhat timidly introduce my experiences from the little Silhoette.  “why don’t we just go across the way here to Eldorado?  That’s where the real bedlam’s at.  You’re all for chaos, smoking and sport jackets, transvestites, little girls, and great ladies, aren’t you?  Of course you’re more for what’s proper, Gert, you want elegant dancing and limits, you want to go to Königin.”  But in the end we decide on something completely different.

If you’re in Germany you can buy a set of (4) posters featuring Readux covers.

In contrast, City of Rumor by Gideon Lewis-Kraus spends less time writing about Berlin, the city, and more on his conflicted emotions regarding it.  He is a modern-day expatriate.  Lewis-Kraus is an American journalist whose work has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, The New York Times Magazine and the London Review of Books.  His writing is as beautiful as Hessel’s, but also more fraught. The modern Berlin he describes is still a frenetic party scene, but seems less innocent and more world-weary. The essay, itself, reads much more self-indulgent; the main conflict being internalized.  Berlin assumes the secondary role, stripped of its unique character and becoming interchangeable with cities like Brooklyn, London or L.A.   “Hipster” is a word that comes to mind.   “Angst” is another.  Of course, the subtitle is “The Compulsion to Write About Berlin“, – so you could say that Lewis-Kraus has delivered on what was advertised.

The chapter about Berlin, like the lives of man of the people I knew in Berlin, had no such constraint – no relevant chronology, no narrative necessity. When I sat down to write about Berlin for the first time, all I could do was make a list of anecdotes, the ones that had lingered with me for some reason, in no particular order.  I wrote them out as a series of disordered episodes – the time we followed the votive candles to the rave in the toolshed in the middle of the park, the time our friend held a real art opening outside a fake art opening – and saw little use or accuracy in connecting them.  After all, they had only ever felt associatively connected in the first place.  They had, or course, happened in one particular order, though as far as I could tell they might very well have happened in any other order, or no order at all.

Side-by-side these essays seem not about Berlin but instead about two generations of young urbanites.  That contrast between authors is what I found most interesting.  Individually they’re entertaining reads – but considered together they have the potential to spark a larger conversation about historical, cultural and literary changes.

The two fiction titles are Fantasy by Malte Persson, translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel and The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping by Francis Nenik, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire.

Publisher:  Readux Books, Berlin

In Berlin: Day and Night in 1929
ISBN:  978 3 944801 01 8

City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write About Berlin
ISBN:  978 3 944801 03 2

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KINO by Jürgen Fauth

KINO.  The title was the first thing I loved about Jürgen Fauth’s debut novel.  Short for Kinematographie (German for cinematography), it’s the nickname of the story’s tragic hero.  But more importantly, it embodies the glamour of Berlin between two World Wars – a town of cabarets, never-ending parties, sex, cocaine (Zement), a new and prospering film industry and an economy teetering on a highwire… DAMN! what’s not to love?!

There was one lie that made me seem more interesting than all the others.  Everyone wanted to drink with me, get  high with me, and sleep with me when we told them I was a movie director.  It was a lie that turned me into the center of attention and opened the tightest twat.  One night over dinner, Joachim Ringelnatz – the whimsical poet who wore a sailor’s uniform wherever he went – eyed me funny and asked if I wasn’t a bit young to be working for the cinema, “für’s Kino.”

I had my mouth full of lamb stew, so Steffen came to my defense. “Don’t you read the papers?  Klaus is a prodigy! The youngest director in Neubabelsberg!”

I put down my fork, swallowed, and pointed a finger.  “Joachim,” I said.  “I don’t work für’s Kino.  I am Kino!”

When two German film canisters appear on Mina “Wilhemina” Koblitz’s doorstep she puts her life on hold to track down where they came from and what they mean.  Her grandfather was Klaus Koblitz –  the enigmatic German filmmaker of the 1930’s known as Kino.  A wunderkind whose entire oeuvre, with the exception of a Hollywood B-Movie, was lost in the war.  That missing work attained a legendary/cult status among serious film buffs.  And Mina quickly learns that the reels of film in the canisters hold what many believe to be his masterpiece – Tulpendiebe (The Tulip Thief). 

Jürgen Fauth has written a wild adventure full of intrigue, conspiracy theories and family history.  Who to trust?  What is the truth? Whose side are you on?  That last question might be the most difficult to answer.  As the book progresses we are introduced to the entire Koblitz clan – and a more miserable bunch of Arschlöcher I’ve never encountered.  Or a more fascinating. Tolstoy, apparently, was right.  Over the top, extreme in every way, the Koblitz’ motivations and responses are always realistic.  Fauth has accomplished something which I think can be very difficult for a novelist.  His characters hang together like a family.  You can read the Koblitz genetic code in each of them.  They resemble one another yet retain their individual personalities.

As the convoluted narrative unfolds we see Kino in 3-D.  He’s dissected in journal entries, friend’s and family members’ memories and – of course – the films themselves.  All interpreted through the 21st Century eyes of Mina.

I don’t know what I expected, honestly.  Something ponderous and silent, German expressionism or whatever.  It started with a logo I’d already sort of seen in our apartment, holding the film up to the kitchen lights.  Then, a pair of huge eyes:  a close-up of a little girl, staring straight into the camera.  Her father, whose face we don’t see, Peanuts-style, is reading her a bedtime story.  The cover of the book he’s reading from supplies the title credit:  Tulpendiebe.

Right away, Dr. Hanno started to whisper to me like a real-life DVD commentary track.  How back in the twenties, farming devices were all the rage, Dr. Caligari being the most obvious example.  He translated all the intertitles, even the one that said “Holland, Anno 1636.”

The main part of the movie is set in a picturesque Dutch seaside town, canals and fields and windmills and so on, but it’s all done in the studio with painted backdrops, making it looked stylized, like a kid’s book, with extras in clogs and bonnets and pantaloons.  Fake, but sort of charming.  Would have been better in color.

Fauth has created in his portrait of a man something reminiscent of The Real Life of Sebastian KnightKINO is densely packed with ideas.  The story plays out against the backdrop of Mina’s life, the year 2003 and the Iraq war.  Obsession, an undeniable part of an artist’s make-up, is a major theme KINO explores.  How much is an artist willing to sacrifice for his or her art?  And still remain within the bounds of what society deems acceptable?  What, as a reader, do you find tolerable?

And then there is the history.

I’d guess there have been thousands, if not tens-of-thousands of books, fiction & non-, written about WWII and the Holocaust.  KINO is also a part of that tradition, giving a thoughtful portrait of the toll Nazi Germany took on its own people.  The shattered hopes, dreams and lives – broken friendships & communities.  There is a hint of it in Daniel Stein, Interpreter.  Viktor Frankl touches on it briefly in Mans Search for Meaning. I thought of the musical Cabaret a few times while reading the novel (in a good way that I don’t usually associate with musicals).   But KINO hones in – forcing the reader to pause and consider what this man might have become if the rise of Hitler could have been removed from the equation.   From there it’s not so hard to make the leap as to how we might behave if the same situation was inserted into our own lives.

Yeah, Fauth has written a novel crowded with ideas. 

KINO challenged me all the way to its final, fabulous last sentence.  It is absolutely flawless.

Publisher:  Atticus Books, Kensington Maryland (2012)
ISBN:  978 0 9832080 7 5

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