Given the sad news of October 18th, I had to start this year’s #germanlitmonth with a translation from Anthea Bell. After all, she has introduced me to many fine writers over the years, it seems fitting that the work she left behind will continue to do so.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger is a colossus of contemporary German letters. working as an author, poet, translator, essayist, editor and critic, he has won many prestigious awards; the 1963 Georg Büchner prize, the 1985 Heinrich-Böll Prize, the 1987 Heinrich-Heine Prize. Some of his work is highly intellectual and serious, but there is a lighter side to him. His entry on wikipedia states, “He also invented and collaborated in the construction of a machine which automatically composes poems. It was used during the 2006 Football World Cup to commentate on games.” I’d love to find those poems. He has also written a number of children’s novels, and that is where I started, with his fantasy novel for young adults, Wo Warst Du, Robert?, which in Bell’s translation won the 2003 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature.
Where Were You, Robert? is essentially a time-travel fantasy in which 14-year old Robert travels through various historical periods. He is an unwilling traveller, however. His journeys are triggered whenever his eyes begin to flicker, and he travels into the time of the scene he had just been contemplating, whether that be via the television, a photograph or a painting. He always travels backwards in time, further and further away from his own time. His quest, if you will, is how to get back home.
His is a 7-stage journey. From the Germany of the late 1990’s to
- Soviet Russia 1956 where he is mistaken for a spy
- Australia 1946 where he falls in love with the daughter of a Jewish emigrant sheep-farmer
- His home town in 1930 which is being torn apart by the battles between the communists and the Nazis
- Norway 1860 (More on this later.)
- Central/Eastern Europe Robert finds himself employed as a page to a princess’s court and befriended by a philosopher.
- Central Europe 1638 and Robert becomes the leader of a robber band during the 30 Years War
- Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age, when he becomes an apprentice to an unnamed but Rembrandt-like painter.
Each period is sufficiently detailed, but not overwhelmingly so, to provide a feel and spark further interest in its YA audience for the time in question.
At first Robert’s survival is dependant on good luck and the benevolence of those into whose stories he falls, though as he becomes more experienced at this time-travel malarkey, he becomes more and more capable of looking after himself. Most of artifacts that travel with him in his pockets (money in particular) useless because he is travelling backwards, and they haven’t been invented yet! His one advantage is his foreknowledge, but he learns when to keep it in check. He knows not to interfere with the course of history, but cannot prevent himself helping his impoverished grandmother. He’s a fine lad who does not deserve the difficulties or the obdurate folk he faces in the Norwegian episode. But it is the only time he reveals himself fully to someone. It’s a mistake he does not repeat.
He comes into contact with people of every social class, people of varying cultures, varying philosophies. And many foreign tongues. This adventure is an education like no other. A bildungsroman, if you will. By the time he makes his seventh time-leap to Amsterdam, he is no longer fazed by his experiences and is on the cusp of working out how to return home. And capable of insights like these:
Languages were like clothes, new suits which you had to put on; they only felt stiff and uncomfortable at first, until you got used to them. If it’s true that clothes make the man, thought Robert, you could say the same of foreign languages. You moved differently in them, changing yourself until you felt right; you almost became another person.
By the time he gets home – that’s not a spoiler, this is a YA novel, it has to end happily – he has matured. And what I’m curious about now, is how on earth he’s going to hide his centuries of experience from his unsuspecting parents. Given the first sentence –
It was a perfectly ordinary day when Robert disappeared, and the strangest thing about his disappearance was that nobody noticed it, not even his mother.
– they’re going to wonder what on earth has happened to their little boy!