When travelling, it is important to connect with local culture. And so, while in Hamburg, I went on a quest with Uwe Timm’s The Invention of Curried Sausage to discover the origins of that particular culinary delight. OK, I confess I bought my first one ever for the photo opportunity. Then I ate it. It was fine, but I’m not likely to repeat the experience. Thankfully the novel was more to my taste.
The rumour is that the curried sausage was invented in Hamburg in the autumn of 1945 by fast food stall owner, Lena Brucker. In 1989 Uwe Timm’s fictional self, who as a child indulged frequently in this fast food, tracks her down to her old people’s home, with the intention of finding out how she did it. It takes more time that he allocated, for Lena, now a lonely old woman, knows how to string out her story – particularly, when she has a young man who keeps coming back, bringing delicious German cake to each meeting.
But Lena’s story is no ordinary one and worth the wait (and the calories!) It takes us back to the final days of the Second World War, when Lena (43) meets the young naval officier, Hermann Bremer (24), and, seemingly on a whim, colludes in his desertion. She keeps him hidden in her flat, but although the war is almost over, this is still a dangerous action. Neighbours still spy on each other and are quick to denounce traitors to the authorities.
Once the war is over though, Lena decides that she would like to keep Hermann to herself a little longer and so, using the same creativity she will employ in the creation of her culinary masterpiece, she invents a continuation of the war, complete with manoevres and strategies, to convince Hermann that he must stay put. Of course, this is a tactic doomed at some point to failure, but Lena enjoys herself (and Hermann) while it lasts.
The surprise return of her womanising, free-loading husband after six years forces Lena to recognise her desire for independence, and once he is out of the way, she embarks on the journey – via barter and the black market – that, step by step and by fortuitous accident, leads to her famous invention.
I’m remembering this story as a light-hearted one, which is strange given the backdrop of war-torn Hamburg, the dangers of harbouring a deserter, and the anathema that Lena must face from her British army employer when the horrors of the concentration camps become clear. I think that is primarily due to Lena’s resilience and indomitable spirit, refusing to let history weigh her down, continuing to achieve the seemingly impossible. Because how else do you explain a blind old woman retaining the capacity to knit a multi-coloured intarsia from memory, weaving in the clouds and sunshine of her own life along the way?