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hour of the jackalWinner of the 2011 German Prize for Crime Fiction
Translated from German by John Brownjohn

Lack of evidence ensured that no-one was ever successfully prosecuted for the 1989 political assassination of pro-independence, anti-apartheid activist, Anton Lubowski. Even if the identities of the killers were known.

In The Hour of the Jackal, Jaumann imagines what would happen, if decades after the event, someone decides that justice must finally be served. A merciless, brutal assassin begins to take out Lubowski’s killers. It is a race against time for he is, himself, terminally ill.

The detective, Clemencia Garises, makes the connection between the victims after the second killing and seeks to contact the other men the hit list. Yet she is obstructed by both by the lack of urgency in her own force and by influential others: the retired judge of the failed trial and her own superiors. She would make no headway if she didn’t have the help of a German journalist, whose interest in her is a little more than professional.

Clemencia is a dedicated officer with trials of her own. In an inversion of the usual trope, it’s not that she has no family, rather that she has too much. She shares the two-roomed home, paid-for entirely by her, with her two children and her extended family, including two meddlesome, match-making aunts. (They love the journalist, by the way.) Clemencia’s only demand that she has a room of her own. The sometimes comic tribulations of Clemencia at home contrast sharply with the serious and life-threatening problems of the case, which is dark, violent and steeped in the murky politics of the late-80’s.

The novel includes a portrait of Namibia itself, a vast country with dust-track roads and a climate of extremes. Changeable with sudden storms – just like the plot. Clemencia’s family life  allows the author to inject local colour, and is reminiscent of Alexander McCall-Smith’s Ladies Detective Series, although Clemencia is no Madama Ramotswe. Jaumann’s assassin has much in common with Frederick Forsyth’s jackal, and I’m sure the title is no accidental homage. Like Forsyth’s jackal, Jaumann’s is hunting real people, with uncamoflagued identities.  Given that they weren’t convicted of the crime in reality, and some were still living when Jaumann named them here, the author isn’t compromising in any way. Unlike his detective, who finds herself fighting to save the lives of men whose values she loathes. It makes for a most interesting dilemma.

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This post is part of a series in which I investigate the German Krimi, guided by Katharina Hall’s Crime Fiction in German. Jaumann’s novel is discussed in more detail in chapter 5: Der Afrika-Krimi (Crime Novels set in Africa).

 

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sandWinner of the Leipzig Book Fair Prize 2012
Translated from German by Tim Mohr

I was a little nervous going into this Leipzig Book Prize award-winning novel, having previously abandoned two others. I needn’t have worried – this one is a bit of a page turner!

Somewhere in the Sahara of the early 70s, two local policemen get drunk and take an IQ test for 12 to 13 year olds.  Polidoro scores a measly 102.  His colleague, Canisades, 130.  Soon they are interrogating a suspected murderer.  Allegedly he drove into the nearby American commune and killed 4 people.  During the interrogation, it is not at all clear whether he is innocent or guilty.  Regardless he is going to pay with his life.  And then he escapes and disappears into the desert.

At the same time a nameless man – known later as Carl, because of brand of his suit  – regains consciousness in a barn somewhere in the desert.  He has a bad head injury and no memory whatsoever.  But he knows he is in mortal peril.  Fortunately he hasn’t lost his resourcefulness, because he needs it and will continue to do so for the rest of the novel.  It seems that everyone is out to get Carl – gangsters, American molls, cod psychologists, enemies posing as friends. If only he could work out his identity, there might be a resolution.  As it is, he is beaten and tortured, chased from pillar to post,  or rather from sand dune to underground mine, in the course of which he effects escapes worthy of Houdini.

At one point, as he is being chased across the dunes:

Two flat slabs of rock stood in the sand next to each other as if in a toaster.  In their slipstream a deep trench had formed.  He threw his body into it, his head between the slabs of rock , and shoveled sand onto his legs and torso.  He burrowed his arms sideways into the ground. It wasn’t difficult to make little avalanches of sand pour down on himself from the slanted sides of the trench.  Finally he rotated his head back and forth between the rock slabs. …. He breathed deeply, closed his eyes and rotated his head back and forth again. Another load of sand slid down over his forehead to his cheekbones, dusting his eyelids, cheeks and the corners of his mouth like powdered sugar.  He had only a very rough impression as to how much of his face will still uncovered.  Probably his chin and the tipof his nose.  But he couldn’t turn his head any more now.  With a little puff he blew a few grains of sand out of his nose and waited.

Buried alive.  Hellish.  And yet it’s not the scariest thing that happens to him.

The mystery of Carl is the central mystery of this novel. It may, or may not,  involve espionage, drug-dealing, gold smuggling.  It certainly involves a man named Centrois, who may, or may not,  be Carl.   After Carl’s appearance,  the first crime disappears from view. Why its inclusion?  As far as I can see, it purpose is to signal some of the games that Herrndorf will play in the main narrative. He’s not going to pander to reader’s expectations.. The question of innocence or guilt – answered in the first case at the half-way point – is never clarified with regard to Carl, although I find myself presuming guilt (for, otherwise, all these bad people wouldn’t be after him, would they?) Yes, guilty even though we can do nothing but sympathise with the poor, persecuted soul.    There is also a comic element to Polidoro and Canisades, with comedy reappearing from time to time – possibly to relieve an ever darkening mood.  Regardless, the scene with the “psychologist” is very, very funny.  And the word play on the French word “mine”,  ingenious.

Written when Herrndorf was suffering from a terminal brain tumour, it’s telling that Carl has a severe head injury.

He tried to turn his head and felt pains he couldn’t pinpoint. As if a fist were trying to push his eyes out of his head from the inside …

Is Carl’s experience a projection of the inside of Herrndorf’s head at the time of writing?  Other reviews have used the word nihilistic.   Certainly Herrndorf allows something to happen to Carl that I would find unforgiveable elsewhere, and yet, knowing the author knew his own struggles to be futile, I understand completely.


This post is stage 8 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project.

Next stop: Denmark

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The chances are you’ve seen this video by Tribes.  The counter is currently showing 44 million views, but, as it is simply the most powerful message I’ve seen recently about the futility of war, given the current predilection for (what will hopefully be only another round of) sabre-rattling, I’m including it here.

Estimating the number of deaths in all those conflicts is an impossible task, the numbers from World War Two are mind-boggling enough. But each of those 80 million deaths was an individual tragedy, and it’s on the individual level that we feel the pain more acutely.

I left Heinrich Böll as he was leaving high school entering the book trade, seeking ways to avoid becoming another cog in the Nazi machine. In the years between then and the publication of Where were you, Adam? in 1951, he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht. He survived 4 wounds and typhoid fever to distill those experiences into this short and powerful novella.

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From The Collected Stories of Heinrich Böll – Translated from German by Leila Vennewitz

With no preamble Böll pitches the reader onto the Eastern Front. Hungary 1944. The war is lost and the German army is retreating from the advance of the Russians. Except the words defeat and retreat are forbidden – all movement must be packaged as redeployment. Call it what they will, the horrors and absurdities of war still prevail.  Generals knowingly send men without enough firepower into battle to buy time.  Amidst the carnage, Nazis still have resource and energy to clear the ghettos.

So much for the big picture. Individual stories break down abstractions and generalisations and this is where Böll’s story excels. He relates the story of the German defeat through a collage of experiences: those of the different ranks in the Wehrmacht together with representatives the civilian population. Each episode is depicted realistically with sufficient detail to engage this civilian reader’s senses and emotions without overdoing it. (Unlike this one.)

The first episode begins  with the general inspecting his battalion shortly before sending them into battle:

First came a face, large, yellow, tragic, moving past their lines; that was the general. The general looked tired. The face with puffy blue shadows under the malaria-yellow eyes, the slack, thin-lipped mouth of a man dogged by bad luck, moved hurriedly past the thousand men. … Each of the three times three hundred and thirty-three men into whose faces he looked was aware of a strange feeling: sorrow, pity, fear, and a secret fury.  Fury at this war, which had already gone on far too long …..

Those emotions were key to my reading because in the course of the 134 pages, I felt all of those (although there’s nothing secret about my fury).  For while the German army is staging its retreat – sorry, redeployment – the body count still rises.  And these men – conscripts, in the main – are destined to fall.  But they aren’t just statistics.  Their backstories render them human and in some cases, more vulnerable because of a chronic health condition.  Another man is a wine merchant, conscripted and sent by the whim of some delusional maniac to source 50 bottles of the finest Hungarian wine.  Amidst the madness there are fine examples of courage: doctors and medical orderlies who remain with patients in post-operative recovery to give them a chance of survival.

Civilian life is represented by the Hungarian landlady who quarters the  German troops. She makes a good living out of the war and is sorry when her time of bounty is over.  Conversely there is the Catholic Jewish teacher, Ilona, who makes an unwise choice to visit her parents in the ghetto.

The episodic structure is held together by the figure of Feinhals, whose movements take us from one story to the next.  Wounded in the opening battle (much to his relief) , he is taken to the medical station, the location of the second and third chapters.  Post recovery he meets Ilona, but their love affair is short-lived as he receives further redeployment orders.  And so it continues with increasing absurdity and meaningless sacrifice until the end of the war when Feinhals is decommissioned and on the threshold of his parent’s home.

I’m struggling to identify the most absurd moment of them all.  Could that be poor Fleck’s death who dies on the battlefield, pierced in the chest by one of those 50 wine bottles.

“In the chest?”

“That’s right – he must have been kneeling over his suitcase.”

“Contrary to regulations”, said the second lieutenant.

How macabre is that?

But there is further absurdity to follow including a bridge that is rebuilt only to be destroyed by the builders the day after completion.  You couldn’t make it up, and I suspect Böll didn’t.  As for meaninglessness, the apex is reached in the last chapter, in the last gasp of the war.  It is an incident that is well-signalled, and has been subtly foreshadowed throughout. Nevertheless it resurrected all those emotions highlighted in the first chapter.   It also made this reader raise a white flag in the face of human stupidity.

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I have returned to the cold, grey skies of Scotland after a hectic but satisfying fortnight in the warm, blue skies of Germany where there is a beautiful spring in progress. (Sigh) You guessed that much, but to which cities did my four travelling companions accompany me?

1) Berlin – Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of A Polar Bear is partly set in Berlin, and you could say that I was partly there too. My stop-over lasted a couple of hours – enough time to transfer from airport to railway station, grab lunch and snap a covert picture of the Reichstag. It’s there on the left.

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2) Leipzig – I was on my way to the Leipzig Book Fair, which is quite unlike any Book Fair I’ve previously visited. Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Sand was the 2012 winner of The Leipzig Book Fair Prize and Clara Schumann, the heroine (for heroine she was) of Janice Galloway’s Clara was born there.

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3) Bonn – Clara’s husband, Robert Schumann, died in a mental instition in Endenich, Bonn. The city is also the location of Heinrich Böll”s most popular novel The Clown (and the Bönnscher Brewery. 😊 )

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Reviews of the Leipzig Book Fair and three novels to follow.

I reviewed Clara back in 2007  when it deservedly became my Book of the Year. In the meantime I have travelled extensively round Germany and seen many of the places Clara Schumann lived and worked, and that really augmented this long overdue reread. I didn’t intend for this trip to become a Clara Schumann memorial tour, but in many ways that is what it became. Places I visited in Leipzig: the Gewandhaus, the concert hall where she played her first concert at age 9; the church where she married in Schönefeld, and her first marital home at Inselstrasse 32. In Düsseldorf her final marital home at Bilker Strasse 15.

Not that you need to have seen these places to appreciate Galloway’s wonderful novel, but they show how modestly the Schumanns and their huge brood lived despite their superstar status,  and how their histories have been sanitised. You’d be hard pressed to detect any kind of struggle in their lives at all. I can only recommend you read Galloway’s novel to discover the real-life passion and the pain in the life of a creative genius.

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Translated from German by Leila Vennewitz

Subtitled Or Something to Do with Books

It was the subtitle that reeled me in.  I dived in expecting this to be full of nostalgia for the books that influenced the 1972 Nobel Laureate. There is some of that but it is not the main focus. Set in the years 1933 -1937, this is a memoir of Böll’s formative schooldays which just happened to coincide with the years in which the Nazis consolidated their powerbase.  So fond school memories, with which Böll begins most chapters, are soon related to the background. There are bigger isues to deal with.

Written some 45 years after the events, Böll is careful not to let hindsight impinge on the story.  His aim is to describe the boy he was and the family he belonged to together with the impact that events had on their lives and the city they lived in (Cologne). The book ends very specifically on February 6, 1937, the day Böll graduated from high school, but he makes no other claims to historical accuracy with regard to the chronology of events. As he says, all his notes were destroyed during the war.

Böll’s family was Catholic with bohemian leanings and a natural aversion to Nazism. Outsiders though not belonging to any persecuted minority. They did not join the Party, did not attend rallies and, for a while at least, did not have to compromise. At school Böll was bored and, often played truant with his mother’s collusion, bicycling through the Rhine valley, often with a girl for company. When he did attend school, he studied Mein Kampf in great detail …

Our teacher, Mr Schmitz, a man of penetrating, witty, dry irony … used the hallowed text of Adolf Hitler the writer to demonstrate the importance of concise expression, known also as brevity. This meant that we had to take four or five pages from Mein Kampf and reduce them to two.

Thus, says Böll, not entirely tongue in cheek, I can thank Adolf Hitler the writer for some qualification to be a publisher’s reader and a liking for brevity.

If it hadn’t been for the Nazis, these would have been an idyllic few years. But the face of the German world was changing and Böll’s memoir conveys the shock of the general populace by events in 1933 such as the burning of the Reichstag, the signing of the Concordat (described by Böll as a body-blow) and the execution of alleged Communist conspirators in Cologne. Still the hope that Hitler wouldn’t last long died on June 1934 with the Röhm putsch. It was the dawn of the eternity of Nazism.

As the Nazi grip tightened, and the family finances deteriorated because Böll’s tradesman father couldn’t obtain any contracts, it was decided that material survival took priority over political survival, and that one member of the family had to join a Nazi organisation. His elder brother, Alois, was elected by the family council. Alois never really forgave them for it, even though in those early National Socialist years there were way of bribing your way out of the obligatory duties

The family’s biggest worry though was what’s to become of the boy? They all knew that Hitler meant war. Böll talks about his generation being schooled for death, the greatest honour being to die for the Fatherland. Which profession would offer a safety blanket? The priesthood? But Böll had discovered the opposite sex and was not willing. So with membership of the Nazi Labour Front an inevitability, Böll decided to do something with books and obtained an apprenticeship in a quiet, non-Nazi bookstore.

As the memoir ends, the illusion of remaining an outsider prevails. Böll has dodged a metaphorical bullet. As history shows, he wouldn’t be so lucky dodging the real ones which began to fly just two years later.

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December 2017 marks the centenary of Böll’s birth, so to commemorate the event, I intend to work my way through Melville House Publishing’s Essential Böll Series.  I started with the memoir to have a biographical reference point when (re-)reading his fiction.

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Translated from German by Anthea Bell

I’ve been rationing myself so as not to come to the end of the Pushkin Classic editions of Zweig’s novellas, but I reckon that the week of the 75th anniversary of his suicide is as fine a week as any to do so.  I also wanted to evaluate this volume, published in 2011, against the critique that Seksik has Zweig level against himself in The Last Days.

In the end, they were all invariably similar to one another: short stories about single-minded passions, irrepressible loves and macabre consequences … His work lit a series of conflagrations in the hearts of his heroes … The characters would attempt to resist their passions and once they relented and gave into them, their guilty consciences prompted them either to turn their backs on life or to lapse into madness.

Actually this is Zweig repeating the accusations of his critics and fellow writers (Klaus Mann and Ernst Weiss are specifically named)  which they used to argue his status as a minor writer.  And yes, they have a case, but those very same qualities are what make Zweig’s novellas compulsive reading for me and numerous others.  Still what about the four novellas in The Governess and Other Stories?

The Miracles of Life (1903), written at the age of 21, clearly demonstrates that the interest in history, that resulted in multiple biographies throughout Zweig’s career, began early. It is set Antwerp in 1566, the year of rebellion and rioting against Spanish rule, which forms the background.  Esther, a Jewish girl previously rescued from a pogrom by a kind-hearted soldier, becomes the subject of a religious painting destined to hang in a Catholic church. A number of passions are evident here: that of the artist for getting his painting  just right; that of both artist and subject for their respective religions (he is Christian, who believes his task is to convert the girl, while she, although having lost all connections to her own religious community, remains passionately attached to the Jewish faith); and finally, the passion that proves fatal, that of the girl for the child, who is the Saviour to her Madonna in the painting. This is the longest and most complex of the stories in this volume, full of atmospheric  historical detail and dramatic irony.  While the painter couldn’t convert the girl, he nevertheless unsuspectingly inflames her with a love for the child. This leads directly to the girl’s death.  For the Jewess, who has rejected the Christian faith,  dies defending a Catholic icon in the aforementioned riots. It’s also fascinating to see the conflict between Christian and Jew taking centre stage, particularly as Zweig never was an observant Jew.

The Governess (1907) is the usual tale of a governess who falls from grace, following her seduction by a member of the famiily she is working for.  Or rather it would be the usual tale except that the episode is described from the uncomprehending viewpoints of her two charges, aged 12 and 13. Their naivety is charming, and it lends a bittersweet charm to their narrative, because, of course, the reader knows where this is heading. That the girls have absolutely no clue of what has happened at that age is incomprehensible to us today, but this is Vienna in the early 20th century, and the disgrace is the governesses’s own. Of course, she must pay the penalty.

Downfall of the Heart (1927) moves us beyond the First World War, when the younger generation had rejected the moral values at play in The Governess. The problem here is that old man Salomonsohn is stuck in the past. The discovery that his daughter is sleeping with one of the three men flirting with her on a family holiday is as a blow to the heart, triggering an obsessive reaction that sees him increasingly withdraw from both wife and daughter.  This is the story that best fits the monomaniacal template of the critique above.  Yet not quite. I usually feel sympathy for the victims of their passions. I felt none for maudling old Salomonsohn.

If I were to describe Did He Do It? (1935-1940) in one word, it would be playful, and that even though it incorporates tragedy and a monomaniacal murderer!  Written sometime during the years Zweig spent in exile in the UK, this is both his homage to Bath, where he spent those happy years, and to the classic British murder mystery.  Obviously I can’t say too much about this, particularly as the ending is left open to interpretation, but there’s no doubt in my mind.  He did do it!

There’s no denying it – all these novellas fit the emotional template quoted above for tragedy is to be found in all walks of life – from the working classes to high society. After all,  human nature is the same regardless of station in life.  Yet Zweig rings the changes with historical settings (from the beginning of the Reformation to the roaring twenties and beyond) and narrative point-of-view (naïve young children, chatty middle-aged women, kindly or otherwise old men). Atmosphere and tone always fit.

Zweig was better writer than his critics have and still do suggest, and for me, reading him is much more enjoyable than reading many an acclaimed masterpiece. Which would explain why Zweig has more shelfspace than any other author in my personal library.

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Stage 5 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project, this post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.

Next stop: Italy

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It was love at first sight – truly.

The book stood out from the others on the bookshop shelf in the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar.

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The word play in the title made me laugh (you only need to change one letter (s to b) in the German to get to the saying live and let live).  The jacket illustration made me laugh as well. I knew I could recreate it.  And so I did, once I had reclaimed my reading sofa from the unruly TBR.

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But the clincher was when I flicked through and discovered the book-culling poem by Eugen Roth.  What other treasures was I going to discover?

As it turned out a great many because Daniel Kampa’s selection of prose and poetry about the joys and frustrations of readers, writers, booksellers and critics is inspired.   The renowned Nikolaus Heidelbach has also illustrated the book, and those illustrations are as quirky as some of the pieces.  Sometimes they match the text, oftentimes they do not. But they do form a couples of series: the first of human readers,  the second the  imaginary animal reader.  Heidelback obviously has a high opinion of the cat’s intelligence, whilst he feels the canine to be a less sophisticated beast. (Grrrr.)

 

The reading itself consists of 51 pieces of prose and poetry from authors around the world.  Old favourites (Böll, Chekhov, Zweig) plus many, many more I had not read  before.  So in addition to introducing me to German authors (Mascha Kaleko, Joachim Ringelnatz,  Eugen Roth, Kurt Tucholsky)  I have also read the following for the first time: Chilean Pablo Neruda’s Ode to the Book (II), Czech Jaroslav Hasek being very mischievous at a book group, French Marcel Proust spending a day reading and Italian Italo Calvino putting his protagonist reader through hell on a beach!  The English-speaking literary world is also represented with pieces from Nathanael Hawthorne, A A Milne, Flann O’Brien, Henry David Thoreau.

As I was reading, I kept wishing that the book was in English, so that I could quote extensively here.  As it is, I’ve found two of my favourite pieces online: A A Milne on his library, which has made me less worried about the shall-we-call it random nature of my book piles; and Flann O’Brien’s satirical piece on  book-handling services for the rich, whose pristine libraries need to look a little more used.

I was reading the book throughout January. A slower pace than is usual for me, not because of the German – there was only one piece that made my brain ache – Karl Schimper’s poem Ein Leser.  Rather I kept taking diversions.  So an extract from Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop sent me to the shelves to read the whole thing as well as the prequel Parnassus on Wheels. Then last night I made a beeline for Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, because, after the piece noted above, I needed another fix.

Lesen und Lesen Lassen is a 5-star delight from the first page to the last. (In fact, that pithy little 4-line epigram from Goethe on the final page deserves 6 stars!) I expect I shall refer to this anthology time and again – particularly when I need a pick-me-up.  Plus there are the reading trails it has opened up.  In addition to those already taken, I used January’s purchase allowance on 2 books that I can no longer live without: Eugen Roth’s Menschlich/Merely Human and Flann O’Brien’s Best of Myles.

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