Szczepan Twardoch — Wieczny Grunwald

A RIVETING, EXPLOSIVE TAKE ON THE AGE-OLD POLISH-GERMAN CONFLICT.

Szczepan Twardoch’s novel Wieczny Grunwald (Eternal Grunwald), originally published in Polish in 2010, is the explosive tale of Paszko, a royal bastard who survives his own death in battle and traverses time and space as a metaphor for the centuries-old conflict between Poland and Germany.

Born in the late fourteenth century to a well-heeled German mother after her brief liaison with the Polish king, Kazimierz the Great, Paszko grows up in poverty among the inhabitants of a whorehouse. He is taken up by a client of one of these prostitutes, a famous knight, and trained in the art of combat. Paszko later joins the Teutonic Knights, and dies at the Battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg in German).

The Battle of Grunwald, fought between the allied armies of Poland and Lithuania and the Teutonic Knights, was one of the largest battles in medieval European history. The result was a decisive defeat for the Knights, and Grunwald became a keystone of Polish national mythology.

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But Paszko’s death at Grunwald is not the end of his existence. Twardoch resurrects his hero, who differentiates between his own real existence (‘istne światowanie’) and his everlasting dying (‘przezwieczne umieranie’). The latter sees him inhabiting numerous Polish and German identities throughout history—and indeed in parallel realities—notably that of a Nazi-era German soldier. In every incarnation, Paszko is caught in the cycle of human violence, which he sees as an inevitable element of existence:

I nie wzruszam się, widząc tych, co własnem ciałem zasłaniają od bełta swoje dziatki, bo wiem—nie podejrzewam, nie sądzę, lecz wiem, bośm widział—że tak samo strzelali do dziatek pruskich […] I nie patrzę też na to jak na sprawiedliwą pomstę za tamte śmierci, po prostu patrzę: Spartanin zostawia swoje pierworodne dziecko na puszczy, aby umarło, Aztek rozrywa dziecięcą pierś, aby spadł deszcz […] a Prusak, ledwo co wychrzczony, syn poganina, zabija pogańskie dziecko nie z nienawiści. Czy to może przypadek je zabija?

[I do not feel anything when I see them defending their children from quarrels with their own bodies, because I know—I don’t suppose, I don’t think, I know, because I saw—that they shot Prussian children in the same way […] Nor do I look on it as on a justified revenge for those deaths, I just watch: the Spartan leaves his first-born child in the forest so that it will die, the Aztec tears open a child’s breast so that it will rain […] and the Prussian, only just baptised, son of a pagan, kills pagan children but not out of hatred. Could it be chance which kills them?]

Paszko’s narrative flits dizzyingly and exhilaratingly between memories of his first real incarnation—his mother, the bordello, his training as a knight—and his other existences. His everlasting cycle of death, rebirth and struggle enervates him, and he longs for a final death which is consistently denied him:

A ja nie chcę [żyć wiecznie]. Nie chciałem i teraz nie chcę, marzyłem tylko o tym, żeby nie być, żeby mnie nie było, a teraz jestem, wszechjestem, czy raczej coś mnie iści, nie ma formy biernej od być, jak może nie być formy biernej od czasownika być […] a mnie coś iści, wszebożek mnie iści, nie, to nie ja siebie iszczę, nie jestem, tylko wszebożek mnie wszechiści i samo to moje, lecz nie moje istnienie jest cierpieniem, i modlę się do wszechbożka, aby raczył mnie zakończyć, ale wszechbożek milczy, zawsze milczał […]

[But I don’t want to live forever. I didn’t want to, and don’t want to now, I only dreamed of not living, of not existing, but now I am, I am eternally. Or rather, something inhabits me, there’s no passive form of to be, how can there be no passive form of the verb to be […] But something inhabits me, the omnipresent god inhabits me, no, I do not inhabit myself, I am not, only the omnipresent god makes me eternally sentient, and all my-but-not-my existence is suffering, and I pray to the omnipresent god that he might deign to end me, but the omnipresent god is silent, he has always been silent […]

Twardoch’s novel is a work of great creativity, imagination and power, yet also dark, brooding and mysterious. The indigence of the Middle Ages, the violence and brutality of the knightly life, and the horrors of the Nazi regime are all captured brilliantly. Twardoch has created a pseudo-medieval Polish dialect to convey Paszko’s thirteenth- and fourteenth-century milieu, which delineates these parts of the narrative from those which deal with Paszko’s subsequent existences. The underlying theme of Polish-German relations, and the conflicts which have arisen between these two neighbouring peoples, shows how important the two countries’ shared history is even now, when the relationship is more cordial than ever before.

Published by Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2010, 210pp.

Giorgio Bassani – Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini

Undoubtedly one of the great classics of 20th-century Italian literature, Giorgio Bassani’s novel Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini (1962) still deserves our attention today.

Set within the Jewish community of Bassani’s hometown Ferrara, near Bologna, the novel paints a picture of Jewish life in fascist Italy during the 1920s and 1930s so delicate and moving that it is almost beyond comparison.

The novel begins with the nameless narrator visiting Ferrara and its cemetery in the 1950s. It is here that we discover that the mausoleum of the Fitzi-Contini is empty, except for the graves of Alberto, who died from Hodgkin’s disease and his brother Guido, who died as a young child. The rest of the family has been deported to German concentration camps.

It is with this knowledge always on the reader’s mind that Bassani’s novel becomes such an extraordinary experience. For Bassani is not interested in portraying his characters as victims. Rather, we are introduced to their daily lives. In the first part of the novel we therefore learn about the narrator’s everyday life in the Jewish community and at school, as well as his growing fascination with the mysterious Finzi-Contini family, whose children Alberto and Micol only come to school to sit their exams. When one day she invites him to climb over the wall and into the famous garden, the narrator, coming from a humble background, is immediately smitten not only with Micol’s beauty, but also with the park and the villa her aristocratic family lives in.

A few years pass, by now the racial laws have almost turned the Finzi-Continis’ reclusive lifestyle into a necessity. Excluded from the university library as well as the local tennis club because of his Jewishness, the narrator joins Micol and her brother Alberto to play tennis on their own court. They are also joined by their old friend Malnate, a Gentile and a passionate communist. The narrator also uses the private library of Prof. Ermanno, Micol’s father, to complete his studies in Italian literature. Amidst heated political debates, homemade lemonade and the regular rhythm of the tennis court, the narrator falls madly in love with Micol and begins to woo her. Even though she sometimes seems to reciprocate his feelings, it remains an unhappy love, thwarted not only by a difference in class that would make a marriage between them impossible. Following his father’s advice, the narrator eventually gives up the pursuit of a life that is not suitable for someone of his class and only remains in touch with Malnate, severing all ties with the Finzi-Continis. And yet, driven by his unchanging love for Micol, he climbs into the magical garden once more at night, not long before their deportation, to make a discovery that changes everything and makes his time spent here appear in a completely new light.

Written in a beautiful, very subtle style, Bassani offers a glimpse of his own past and a form of life that was lost with the Holocaust. And yet even though a deep sadness pervades this novel, as we see its protagonists live their lives so close to the abyss, there is also an undeniable beauty to those tender memories of a youth that tried to be like any other. BassaniIl Giardino dei Finzi-Contini was made into a movie directed by Vittorio de Sica, starring Helmut Berger, in 1970. It was published in English by Penguin.

Ralf Rothmann – Im Frühling sterben

RothmannIm Frühling sterben (To die in Spring) tells the story of Walter Urban and his friend Fiete Caroli, two young milkers who are forced to join the SS in the spring of 1945. Leaving their girlfriends Elisabeth and Ortrud behind on the dairy farm in the north of Germany, they undergo a brief training and are subsequently sent to the Hungarian front. Whilst Walter is fortunate enough to serve in a supply unit, Fiete is sent to the front to fight in a war against the Russians that has long been lost. It is in front of this background that the tragic events leading to Fiete’s untimely death unfold.

The story is framed by a short portrayal of Walter as an old man dying from cancer and his son’s, i.e. the narrator’s, attempts to get his father to talk about what happened during the spring of 1945. Walter is an introvert who never had any friends as an adult and took to alcoholism in his later years. He refuses to talk about the war and he does not mind the fact that he is dying even though he is only 60 years old. In the next scene we are presented with Walter as a young man and it is here that the actual story begins. He is working on a dairy farm as a milker and the signs of the war are ubiquitous: most of the kettle has been requisitioned, most of the workers are dead and instead of them they are housing refugees from the Eastern parts of the Reich. For the evening the Reichsnährstand (government body regulating food production) has organised a party which Walter, tempted by the promise of free beer and music, attends together with his friend Fiete as well as his girlfriend Elisabeth. It soon becomes apparent that it actually is a propaganda evening at the end of which all men (young and old) are forced to join the SS.

The next morning Walter and Fiete are sent to Hamburg for three weeks of training. Fiete is of a rebellious temper, yet Walter prevents him from protesting publicly against the regime. After three weeks, the young recruits receive their signature SS tattoos and are sent to Budapest. Walter learns that his father, previously a concentration camp guard in Dachau, has been moved to a penal battalion because he gave cigarettes to a prisoner. Walter’s father is a violent alcoholic and he had little sympathy for him before. On their way to Hungary, the young men behave like regular teenagers, unaware of what to expect. Fiete is already planning to escape, hoping to become a prisoner of war with the Americans rather than the Russians. Once in Hungary, Fiete has to fight against the Russians whilst Walter is only working in a supply unit, transporting weapons, food and injured soldiers. Fiete soon returns to their camp with a shrapnel injury.

Walter witnesses not only the bombings, but also the Nazis’ sadistic crimes against the local population whom they accuse of being partisans; he always refuses to participate in these crimes. When Walter finds out that his father is likely to have died in a city nearby, he seeks permission to find his father’s grave. Walter drives across the country for three days, without finding his father’s grave, but gets caught up in the sudden exodus of German soldiers following the rapid advances of the Russian army. He comes across orgies of gay Nazis as well as Jewish prisoners who are killed for the gold in their teeth. Back at the camp he finds out that Fiete has been sentenced to death because he tried to desert. Walter desperately tries to save him, but his superiors refuse his request. In a moving scene, Walter parts with his friend without telling him that he will be part of the firing squad that will execute him. Faced with the decision of being shot himself if he refuses, Walter complies and helps to execute his best friend.

Rothmann has written an extraordinary novel, the beginning of what could be called a post-Grass discourse in German literature. For Rothmann has found a way to portray German suffering during the Second World War without giving in to self-pity and without ever forgetting the German guilt. Sixteen years after W.G. Sebald’s Luftkrieg und Literatur , Rothmann carefully re-opens a long needed discourse in German literature about the ways in which we can talk about German loss. Moreover, by framing his narrative with the story of Walter’s son, who wants his father to talk about the past, Rothmann also touches on the wider cultural significance of this prolonged silence and the suppression of a pain that could not be mentioned.

Im Frühling sterben is published in German by Suhrkamp. An English translation will be published by Picador and FSG.

Thomas Hettche – Pfaueninsel

We already mentioned Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island), the latest novel by the German author Thomas Hettche, in an earlier post here. Set on the eponymous island near Berlin which served as the location for a royal pleasure palace, the novel charts the life of Marie, a lady-in-waiting of small stature. As the nineteenth century progresses, the Pfaueninsel, its palaces and gardens are subject to changes in fashion and taste, and Marie sees the people she loves leave the island and the world she knew change beyond all recognition.

At the age of six, Marie is taken to the island along with her older brother, Christian. She was to serve as a lady-in-waiting for the royal family, but their visits prove rare. She lives with Fintelmann, the island’s gardener, and his family, and comes to know the Pfaueninsel better than anyone. Marie and Christian have an incestuous affair, but she later falls in love with Gustav, the gardener’s nephew. One evening, during a party, Christian makes sexual advances towards Marie, and Gustav, overtaken by anger, murders him. Marie becomes pregnant, but Gustav arranges for the child to be taken away, and he leaves the island to continue his horticultural training. IMG_20150623_172141589 Marie’s life plays out against the changes which happen on the island and farther afield. Friedrich Wilhelm III engages Peter Joseph Lenné as a landscaper, and he transforms the island into a menagerie of exotic animals—lions, kangaroos, monkeys and other animals from far-away lands find a home on the island and amuse its inhabitants and visitors. Tropical plants find their way into the island’s greenhouses. The engineer uses the latest technology to create a complex heating and watering mechanism to sustain the unusual greenery. An African man and a Pacific Islander are also brought to the island and exhibited to visitors alongside kangaroos and lions. Away from the island, cholera decimates Europe in the 1830s, Berlin morphs into a modern metropolis—‘on the island they spoke of the city, of the immensely long streets made of nothing but stone, of the tenements as tall as castles, of courtyards and the innumerable people who laboured in workshops and factories, of canals and boats full of bricks and coal […] of beer gardens and political meetings, of suffering and hunger’ (p. 266)—and in 1848, Friedrich Wilhelm IV and his family flee political unrest and find sanctuary on the island. Later, the exotic animals are transported to the newly founded Berlin Zoo, and the island is deprived of ‘its longing and all its fantasies, which were the only reason Marie and her brother had been brought here’ (p. 263).

Late in life, Marie ventures into Berlin to see a man she had met on the island. Marie hopes that a relationship with this man might offer her the chance of a fresh start away from the island, but in the city she realises that the world had become a different place a long time ago; the world of her childhood no longer exists. She senses that the city will soon encroach on to the island and destroy everything that is familiar to her. But there is another reason that Marie cannot find a place for herself in the world outside the island: she is a dwarf. Marie fits into the world of the Pfaueninsel because of its fairy-tale nature. Nothing is real, everything is just for fun, a game. Marie is timeless, and therefore cannot exist in nineteenth-century Berlin because the city is anything but timeless: it is careering towards modernity.

Hettche’s novel is full of fascinating characters, beautiful writing and meticulous detail. Fintelmann, the royal gardener, likes Marie, but her small stature unnerves him, and he ‘wants to push straps under her armpits and bind her to an espalier to make her grow straight.’ (p. 29) Gustav considers the way in which trees and rivers grown ‘in different directions’: ‘trees branch off ever more finely, rivers grow large from the filigree boughs of their sources’ (p. 100). When Marie sees the island’s first lion through the bars of its cage, its eyes are two ‘golden flashing leaves’ and in the middle of their ‘cold gold fire are small slits in the shape of almonds’ (p. 130). A red line runs around the base of a decanter ‘as around the neck of a suicide’ (p. 303). Reuter, who replaces Fintelmann as royal gardener, peels eggs by dropping them on his plate, before ‘removing the fragmented white shell with squirrel-like movements’ (p. 311).

Pfaueninsel has been well received in Germany, and was shortlisted for the German Book Prize 2014. It is a novel which deserves a wide readership and similar success in English.

Published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch, August 2014, 344pp

Maxim Biller – Im Kopf von Bruno Schulz

Maxim Biller’s novella Im Kopf von Bruno Schulz (Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz) gives a fictional account of an evening in the life of the Polish writer and artist Bruno Schulz. Sitting at the desk of his dismal basement room in the small city of Drohobycz, Schulz is busy writing a letter to his famous colleague Thomas Mann (letters that he actually wrote and have since been lost). The year is 1938 , Thomas Mann is now based in Switzerland and it is not long before the Nazis will invade Poland. Schulz, whose career could be turned around by a letter of recommendation from Mann to foreign publishers, begins to tell the story of the mysterious Mann Doppelgänger that has begun to haunt the city of Drohobycz for some time. Since this novella is not just an homage to Schulz’ unique style, but also to his form of realism, the reader is subsequently confronted with a vision of horror that not infrequently flirts with the surreal. The Doppelgänger that Schulz describes is an unpleasant, unbathed fellow who becomes increasingly aggressive towards the Jewish population of Drohobycz. Whilst they feel initially honoured to welcome such a famous guest in their midst, the atmosphere soon changes and people begin to suspect a fraud. In the final part of his letter, Schulz describes how the false Mann, who lives in the bathroom of the local hotel director, whips members of the Jewish community in shower room. Biller, who has quite literally found a way into Schulz’ head, has thus found a very powerful symbol to convey the horror Schulz must have experienced until his tragic death in 1942. By deploying the figure of a corrupted, violent and sadistic Thomas Mann, Biller has successfully created the image of a culture that Schulz was deeply in love with (he adds the manuscript of the first short story he wrote in German to the letter) yet that would bring death and destruction in return. Beautifully illustrated with some of Schulz’ drawings, this novella is a great achievement on many levels. Biller manages to capture the atmosphere known from Schulz’s own writing and combines it with an intriguing bit of historical fiction that invites readers to find out more about the exceptional artist that Schulz was. And finally, the novella rekindles the hope that some of Schulz’ writing, amongst it his legendary novel Messiah, might still be discovered one day. Im Kopf von Bruno Schulz CoverIm Kopf von Bruno Schulz was published in German by Kiepenheuer & Witsch and in English by Pushkin Press as Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz.

What we’re reading this week: PFAUENINSEL by Thomas Hettche (Kiepenheuer & Witsch)

I’m currently about halfway through Thomas Hettche’s wonderful novel Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island), which was published in German last year. Set in the early nineteenth century on the eponymous royal island getaway, the novel follows the life of Marie, a person of small stature who was taken to the island to be a lady-in-waiting to Queen Luise. While her brother and childhood playmates—including Gustav, with whom she falls in love—leave the island, Marie remains. She witnesses the introduction of new horticultural fashions by Peter Joseph Lenné on the orders of Friedrich Wilhelm III, and the transformation of the island into a menagerie of exotic creatures from around the world.

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I’ll write a full review when I’ve finished the novel, but for now I’ll leave you with Hettche’s beautiful description of the island’s peacocks in spring:

Alle Pfauen der Insel schienen sich an diesem Tag hier in der Frühlingssonne versammelt zu haben, die langen Schwanzfedern streiften über die bloße, nasse Erde, und so zogen die Hähne weiche, fächernde Spuren hinter sich her […] Das Blau der Männchen hatte im hellen Licht einen deutlich goldenen und grünen Schimmer, jede Feder kupfern gerändert und muschelartig gezeichnet, auf der Rückenmitte waren die Tiere tiefblau, auf der Unterseite schwarz, und die grüne Schleppe mit ihren prächtigen Augenflecken war mehr als einen Meter lang.

[On this day, all the peacocks on the island seemed to have gathered in the spring sun. Their long tail feathers brushed over the bare, wet earth, and the peacocks left soft, fanning traces in their wake […] The peacocks’ blue had a definite gold and green lustre in the bright light, every feather was edged in copper and shell-shaped, the animals’ backs were deep blue, their undersides black, and the green train with its majestic eyes was more than a metre long.]

Heinrich Böll – Ansichten eines Clowns

The first novel to be reviewed in our series of literary classics is Ansichten eines Clowns (The Clown) by the Nobel Prize laureate Heinrich Böll. Published in 1963, the novel, labelled as a piece of anti-Catholic writing by the conservative press, sparked a fierce debate among critics that lasted for many months.

Against the wishes of his family, Hans Schnier, the 27-year-old son of rich parents who made their fortune with brown coal, has been working as a clown and pantomime artist for the past six years, touring various German cities with his girlfriend Marie. Yet when Marie decides to end their relationship because of his refusal to marry her and raise their children according to the Catholic faith, Hans’ world falls apart, he takes to drinking and ruins his career. In the novel we find Hans in his apartment in Bonn, looking back at his failed relationship with Marie as well as his childhood during and immediately after the Third Reich. Hans spends his evening ringing different people, including his mother, his father’s mistress, his brother who lives in a convent and various other acquaintances, unsuccessfully trying to borrow money from them. In between those phone calls he looks back at his life, his failed relationship with Marie and his family. A story of loss unfolds—Hans first lost his sister Henriette to his parents’ fascism and later Marie, the love of his life, to Catholicism. Whilst Marie only leaves him in order to marry a key figure in the Catholic movement, his sister Henriette died shortly before the end of the war because her parents sent her to support the German air-defence team. Unable to accept those losses, Hans goes on to criticise the Germans’ unwillingness to admit their fascist past and ability to just carry on as if nothing had happened (strongly symbolised by his mother, who, as a convinced fascist, hoped for the death of those “Jewish Yankees”, and is now chairing a committee for “Racial Reconciliation”) and the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy of proclaiming rules that no one ever follows. Indirectly, this leads him to a critique of the link between the Catholic Church and the fascist regime, and the willingness on the part of the Church to welcome former Nazis into the fold. At the end of the novel, we find Hans singing to his guitar outside the main station, begging for money and waiting for the train that will bring Marie back from her honeymoon.

With his relentless criticism of the Germany of the 1950s and ’60s, Böll remains very relevant for a modern audience. The atmosphere of those years really comes to life in this novel and offers new perspectives on the years of the famous “Wirtschaftswunder”. Currently out of print in English, we would really like this novel to be published again for an English-speaking audience.

20150607_183246In German Heinrich Böll’s works are published by DTV.