The Altes Land (I hesitate to let use the term Old Country because the English connotations are quite different) is situated within an hour of Hamburg. It is also known as Germany’s garden because of its vast output of agricultural produce. Finding myself in Hamburg with time on my hands one beautiful day at the end of September, I took the ferry across the Elbe to Finkenwerder and then a bus to the small village of Königreich in the Altes Land.
I was met with a truly agricultural landscape – a world away from the cosmopolitan metropolis of Hamburg . I mean where in Hamburg would you get a restaurant closed for two days to go duck hunting and elderberry picking? (cf the blackboard in the centre of the collage.) Acres and acres of orchards, their fruits ready for harvest, with dykes protecting both orchards and idyllic thatched cottages from the ravages of the Elbe. These were wonderful scenic views for the literary tourist.
This is not how the Altes Land presented itself in the winter of 1945 when Hildegard von Kamcke and her daughter Vera arrive as refugees from East Prussia; the long cold march having claimed the life of Vera’s baby brother. They find accommodation in an old farmhouse, owned by Ida Eckloff, who begrudgingly accepts their presence, but refuses to make them welcome. Not that this fazes Hildegard, who refuses to play the victim. She is a survivor, and when Ida’s traumatised son, Karl, returns from the war, it doesn’t take long before Ida finds herself with a new daughter-in-law.
Vera suddenly has a home, one with the following inscription on its gables.
This hoose is mine ain and yet no mine ain, he that follows will call it his.
That certainly proves true for Ida, who finds herself usurped by Hildegard. And it proves true for Vera also, even if she never leaves. There’s something about the old, cold house that never lets her settle. Possibly the circumstances of her arrival, or perhaps the fact that her mother leaves her there with PTSD-suffering Karl when she runs off with some richer, healthier, architect from Hamburg! It’s going to take a long time before Vera comes to an understanding of what family and home mean.
Ironically it’s Hildegard’s granddaughter from her second marriage who is destined to provide the answer. When Anne’s relationship with Bernd breaks down, she flees with her son from Hamburg to seek refuge with Vera in the now even older, even colder house. When Hildegard met Ida, the result was domestic warfare. Will the same thing result 60 years later?
It was this contemporary strand of the novel that I enjoyed the most. Hansen uses it to contrast trendy urban attitudes and values with the more traditional values of the Altes Land. Nowhere is this more pronounced (and funny) than in the educating of Anne’s son. Both Vera and Anne find themselves bemused due to the culture shocks each inflict on the other, with both having valuable lessons to teach and to learn.
As I mentioned earlier, the Altes Land is a stone’s throw away from Hamburg and, as such, it is the subject of romantic notions concerning the simplicity of life in the country. Hansen satirises that whole urban mentality with the subplot of downshifter, Burkhard Weisswerth, who moves into the Altes Land to publish a magazine called A Taste of Country Life. Well, as you can imagine, he’s about to understand that life in a farming community is anything but simple.
Hansen, who lived in the Altes Land for many years, is calling for the place and its people to be shown more respect.
I soon realised that the scope of the novel is much bigger than generations of women engaging in domestic warfare over a single stove; that it really seeks this encapsulate a community and a lifestyle. As I read though, I came to the conclusion that the English title does the novel an injustice and it really began to bug me. But I do understand the reason why a literal translation of the German title couldn’t be used. Even I was reluctant to use it in the first sentence of this post. I can imagine the discussions between publisher and translator and the need to settle for something catchy that will appeal to English speakers. And yet, as I now write this, I do see an underlying theme of finding one’s place, finding one’s house (in the sense of home). The German title is the best, but maybe the English title isn’t such a bad one after all.
This House is Mine, ISBN 978-1250100856, translated by Anne Stokes, is longlisted for the 2018 Dublin International Prize,