German and French books I've been reading...

13 November 2021   'Dunkelblum' by Eva Menasse

The eponymous town of Dunkelblum is an imaginary place on the border between Austria's Burgenland and Hungary. The populace, whose characters are brilliantly conceived and described by Menasse, have managed to bury memories of what happened at the end of the war, when thousands of Jewish prisoners were forced to build the last desperate defensive wall against the advancing Russian troops.

Then a historian arrives to do some research, a party of Jewish students come to clear the undergrowth from the abandoned Jewish cemetery, and excavations turn up human remains.

Over the course of 500 pages of meticulous description, delicious irony and mordant humour, we gather insights into who did what during those chaotic months, who knew, what happened to those who knew too much and thus why the story has been hushed up for so long.

Dunkelbum is modelled on the real-life village of Rechnitz, where 200 Jewish prisoners were massacred. These killings have been the subject of much research and dispute, as well as a play by Elfride Jelinek and various documentary films, but the bodies have never been found.

Eva Menasse said at a recent reading in Zurich that the fictional Dunkelblum represented not only the unsolved case of Rechnitz but also the many other killing grounds along what later became the Austrian side of the Iron Curtain. Dunkelblum symbolises the culture of silence and relative impunity that flourished after the Second World War.

Among this book's many pleasures, one notable feature is that it is set in the dying days of the Ostblock, as East German refugees gather at Hungarian border posts in the hope of crossing over to the West. In one grotesquely funny passage that Eva Menasse read aloud, a band of men who were jailed after the war encourage the East Germans to cross the border and then make money by ferrying them to Dunkelblum, where the village puts them up at the West German taxpayer's expense. Those who once welcomed the deportation of the Dunkelblum's longstanding Jewish population are now cheerleaders for the arrival of refugees.

17 October 2021   'Civilizations' by Laurent Binet

This is Laurent Binet's third book after 'HHhH' about the assassination of the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich and 'La Septième Fonction du langage' centred on Roland Barthes (both were translated into English by Sam Taylor, and the latter longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International prize).

Having swerved his first two books, I was tempted by 'Civilizations', a counterfactual history inspired by Jared Diamond's famous theory that it was 'guns, germs and steel' that enabled Europeans to colonise the world. Diamond also muses in a chapter with the title 'Zebras, Unhappy Marriages, and the "Anna Karenina" Principle' that Africans might have invaded Europe if only zebras didn't lack one essential characteristic of horses – docility.

But what if Columbus had never made it to Hispaniola? What if the Incas had come by horses, steel and antibodies and used these weapons to invade 16th-century Europe?

(An aside: why is the French title spelt with a 'z' rather than an 's'?)

Anyway, in Binet's telling it was the Vikings wot cost Europe. Fearing revenge for murdering her husband, Eric the Red's daughter sails away from Newfoundland around the year 1000 and, along with a small crew, some cows, horses and weapons, drifts ever further southwards as their germs eradicate tribe after tribe, until they reach a place where immunity builds up through intermarriage.

Five centuries later, a renegade Incan royal is forced to the shores of the Caribbean and, discovering Columbu's abandoned ships, strikes out eastwards, arriving on the Portuguese coast after an earthquake has more or less wiped out the city of Lisbon.

From there on, the Inca forge alliances with oppressed Jews and Moors and face extermination several times, but through sophisticated strategy and, above all, endless supplies of gold from the Old World, the new arrivals finance the invasion and ethical revival of what they call the 'Fifth Quarter' from the Inquisition and other assorted ills.

It's a stirring tale, the logic breathtakingly intelligent. This intellectualism is a big problem, though. The characters never really amount to much more than ciphers or pawns in Binet's brilliant game, and around halfway through it struck me: it was like reading a history textbook! Which is an amazing achievement nonetheless, and naturally the novel is the appropriate – perhaps the only – medium for plotting such an audacious alternative. It just didn't feel like a novel, merely a series of carefully constructed episodes, the soul of the writing crushed by thought. And of course, the protagonists are all still male...

18 April 2021   'Die Bagage' and 'Vati' by Monika Helfer

'Die Bagage' — Hanser 2020
160 pp.
'Vati' — Hanser 2021
176 pp.

I read Monika Helfer's 'Die Bagage' ('The Riffraff') back in early 2020 around the time it became a bestseller. A slender novel about a dirt-poor, marginalised family in the Austrian Alps during the First World War, I found it hugely evocative of a life of outcasts in a small village, completely reliant on their own resourcefulness and scraps of neighbourly kindness. Despite the harshness of the setting and the parents’ relationship, the woman gains a glimmer of light in the form of a passing German - even though their child, the author's mother, was never spoken to by her father.

Now Monika Helfer has written a new novel-cum-memoir about her 'Vati' or Dad. It is even better, full of funny descriptions of the members of her mother's clan, who stick together through their consistent afflictions, and poignant in its portrayal of Helfer's father. He is an endearing but ultimately tragic figure, a booklover who establishes and then steals the library of the sanatorium for war victims - the dicovery of this theft leading to the whole family being cast out of their Alpine paradise.

20 March 2021   'L'homme-chevreuil' by Geoffroy Delorme

I approached 'Deerman' with some trepidation due to the cover description of ‘the fascinating story of a modern-day Mowgli’ and my memory of Baptiste Morizot's pretentious 'Sur la piste animale', replete with philosophical musings about animal tracking/man’s return to nature.

This book is thankfully nothing like Morizot's. Everything here is down-to-earth exploration, a captivating experiment in which, through patience, consideration and respect, a man learns to communicate and empathize with roe deer. The text, factual yet graceful, is also dotted with Delorme's beautiful, meditative photographs. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Delorme’s skill is striking up relationships (and then describing the process) with various families of deer. To do this he has to approach them very slowly, over many months, and he must also learn to fade into the background of the forest by ridding himself of alien scents and concerns. And so he befriends first the less timid males and then several females until one even allows him to look after her young while she forages for food – a godfather role.

The routines and the adventures he experiences with them allow him to comment – always interestingly, never at excessive length – on the history of forests and hunting in France, forest mismanagement, and the progressive fragmentation of the woodland fabric due to the encroachment of farming, roadbuilding and leisure activities. He has also clearly reviewed a lot of the literature on roe deer and uses it judiciously to contextualise his observations of how the animals mark and defend their territory, mate and gestate, find food and avoid danger.

After seven years in the forest, his energy and health depleted, his relationship with his uncomprehending parents shattered, he returns to human society to tell the story of what he has found and what could be done about the declining diversity of woodlands in France (and, by extension, everywhere).

This unique experiment goes beyond even what Robert Macfarlane, Dian Fossey and others have brought to nature writing – a recognition of the age-old bonds between humans and the landscape; a sympathy with the great apes or with dolphins. Like Helen Macdonald's 'H is for Hawk', it explores the delicate intelligence of an animal neighbour few of us would have thought receptive to communicating with us.

17 December 2020   'Aus der Zuckerfabrik' by Dorothee Elmiger

Hanser 2020
272 pp.

Reading 'From the Sugar Factory' is a disorienting experience. Trying to piece the fragments together, moulding them into some kind of meaning. None is more than a few pages long. They clash in subject and time, now an episode about Toussaint Louverture's landing in Brittany and imprisonment in the Fort de Joux in eastern France, now the narrator talking to her boyfriend or quoting from something she's read.

I was amazed that I kept reading, but somehow I couldn't put the book down.

And gradually there emerges a question, shaped like the Atlantic Ocean, about lucre, luck, lust, colonialism, theft, ruin, regret... That's the sugar in the title: so addictive now, so addictive to the Europeans of the 18th and 19th centuries that they built a traffic in human beings around it.

And Elmiger constructs her narrative around a man called Werner Bruni, who won a fortune in the lottery, invites his friends on a trip to the Dominican Republic where he builds a house for a rich lady, and loses everything by entrusting his winnings to his swindling boss.

1 October 2020   'Murmeljagd' by Ulrich Becher

Schöffling 2020
700 pages

They've done it again.

After releasing a new edition of Gabriele Tergit's magnificent late-19th/early-20th-century family saga 'The Effingers', Schöffling have reissued two very different books by Ulrich Becher — 'Murmeljagd' (1969) and the 'New Yorker Novellen: Ein Zyklus in drei Nächten' (1950). Both are delightful discoveries and have been rightfully acclaimed in Germany, but I'll focus here on 'Murmeljagd', which was published by Crown in 1977 in an English translation by Henry A. Smith.

The blurb on my secondhand English edition (it is out of print) lauds a 'gripping and suspenseful novel by a man whose work has been compared with the best of Günter Grass and Alexander Solzhenitsyn', while Eva Menasse, in her afterword to the new Schöffling edition, explains that critics were bamboozled by Becher's fecund and anachronistic style, so out of step with the prevailing German literary generation of the late sixties, which of course included Grass. Menasse quotes reviewer Martin Gregor-Dellin as saying that Becher is 'so absorbed with his vocabulary and his exotic fest of storytelling that he loses his footing'. To which she responds that he may be losing his footing because his story is about the ground giving way beneath someone's feet.

It took me what seemed like an age to read 'Murmeljagd'. Two full summer months, but not once did I think of abandoning it. It was fascinating and frustrating, brimming with wordplay and tangents and capering characters and typographical oddities. Too much to devour; to be savoured in small helpings. A grotesque farce about life and death.

Albert — known by his name in reverse, Trebla — is an Austrian social democrat and WWI fighter pilot still scarred from a shot to the head during a dogfight, and in the opening pages of the book he skims across the border into Switzerland, outpacing two German skiers and dodging their bullets. Having been on the losing side during the 1934 civil war and persistently imprisoned, he is a wanted man.

In the idyllic Engadine valley, he is beset by dangers both real and imagined. News filters through to him of the Spanish Civil War and the threatening Reich, his father-in-law has been detained and his best friend murdered in a concentration camp, while he is simultaneously summoned to Zurich to renew his visa (exposing himself, he fears, to the risk of deportation back to Austria), investigates German twins whom he suspects of having been sent to assassinate him but who claim to be hunting marmots (or woodchucks, in US parlance), and unhelpfully finds himself in the vicinity of several suicides by drowning or shooting.

Trebla's present tribulations are constantly interrupted by bad news, but he is also taking ephedrin, a strong hay-fever drug which gives him hallucinations and intensifies his paranoia. There are, for example, two notable scenes when he is visited by the dead. One features a procession among the fish when he imagines plunging into the waters of a lake; the other is on a long nighttime march home, as a mysterious car races up and down the road and he is visited by the ghosts of his past. Becher continually uses the term 'Geisterbahnfahrt' — 'a ride on a ghost train'.

It is a stunning evocation of the precarious position of Switzerland, its inhabitants and those who sought refuge in the country as the Reich wraps its tentacles around Europe.

Arguably, however, it is neither this tense atmosphere nor the plot, veering wildly this way and that, that truly set this text apart. What dazzles is Becher's use of language, shot through with dialect, puns, associations, nicknames, inventive curses and jokes, telegrams, newspaper headlines, songs and stenographic notes, all picked out by the oddest use of italics and hyphens.

Becher's dialogues testify to his past as a playwright, but so does his faculty for striking visual imagery, the crowning achievement in this regard being Trebla's reception of the news of how his father-in-law, Giaxa aka 'der Rosenvater', a circus showman, perished in Dachau. In one of the most striking and horrifying images of individual death in the Nazi era - reminiscent of scenes in Curzio Malaparte's novel 'Kaputt' - Giaxa performs tricks on the camp commandant's fine horse, culminating in both rider and horse stranded and charred high on the camp's electric perimeter fence.

The fact that this story is told by Valentin, a Dachau escapee, as he plays billiards on top of a castle overlooking a dark ravine, before taking a fatal flight to participate in the Spanish Civil War... and that Trebla has been kissed, earlier in the evening, by a Spanish aristocrat who has mistaken him for Valentin... simply goes to show how fantastical and absurd this novel is. And these fantastical absurdities come thick and fast, overwhelming the reader.

There must be a UK or US publisher with the nous to republish this masterpiece.

9 April 2020   A lockdown letter to Samuel Pepys

My contribution to S. Fischer Verlag's series of letters from lockdown by publishers, writers and translators, published in their online magazine Hundertvierzehn. Time to dust off that copy of 'The Diary of Samuel Pepys' I bought in Durham last year...

Samuel Pepys FRS Esq.
St Olave’s Church
Hart Street
London EC3R 7NB

Lieber Samuel,

gestatten Sie, dass ich Dich duze und Samuel nenne? Eine Billigung Deinerseits werde ich nicht bekommen: ich lebe mehr als 300 Jahre nach Dir. Ich erlaube mir diese Freiheit, von Engländer zu Engländer, denn aus Deinen bekannten Tagebüchern geht der Eindruck hervor, dass Du einen zugänglichen und aufgeschlossenen Typ warst, der gleichermaßen mit König Karl dem Zweiten verkehren und mit den Wirten und Trinkern Deines Londoner Viertels unkompliziert tratschen konntest.

Warum ich jetzt an Dich denke? Wir sind heutzutage mit einer unerhörten Epidemie konfrontiert, die uns verwirrt und belastet. Während des Wütens der Großen Pest von London hast Du Deine Beobachtungen aufgezeichnet und jetzt war ich neugierig, Dein Tagebuch zu lesen und Dir von den Anklängen und Unterschieden zu berichten. (Es beglückt Dich, nicht wahr, dass Deine täglichen, rasch in einer akribischen Schrift notierten Bemerkungen noch im 21. Jahrhundert Leser finden? Gesamtausgaben, Auswahleditionen. Stell dir vor, sogar einen »erotischen« Pepys gibt es!)

In diesen Tagen wird dennoch viel eher der Bestseller 'Die Pest zu London' von Deinem Fast-Zeitgenosse — aber kein Zeitzeuge — Daniel Foe erwähnt; sein Buch zählt zu den aktuellen Literaturtipps. Warum Foes Aufzeichnungen so dringend als Lesestoff empfohlen werden? Die Pest ist wieder da, diesmal wie damals aus China angekommen; aber während sie damals Jahre benötigte, den Weg aus China über Zentralasien und nach England zurück zu legen und noch dazu ein paar Jahrhunderte im Umlauf blieb, kam sie in ihrer heutigen Gestalt, als Covid-19, innert weniger Tage in Europa an.

Wie das möglich war? Du hast eine Karriere als Verwalter im Marineamt aufgebaut, in Verhandlungen kanntest Du Dich aus, aber der Handel hat sich inzwischen auf den ganzen Planeten ausgeweitet, und die Schoner und Dreimaster des 17. Jahrhunderts sind Luftschiffen gewichen, die jeden Tag Zehntausende von Reisenden von anderen Kontinenten zu und von den beiden großen sogenannten »Flughäfen« von London befördern.

Von meinem kleinen Bauerndorf im Zürcher Oberland aus stehe ich mittels eines ausgetüftelten Apparats mit unzähligen Menschen in Kontakt und obwohl Versammlungen von mehr als fünf Leuten verboten sind und vom Reisen strengstens abgeraten wird, erhalte ich laufend Nachrichten aus der ganzen Welt.

An Deinem täglichen Leben hast Du zu Pestzeiten wenig geändert. Die größte Sicherheitsmaßnahme hast Du für Deine Frau getroffen, als Du sie in das die Themse abwärts gelegene Woolwich geschickt hast; soziale Distanzierung in einem entfernten Dorf war das, „Selbstisolierung“ wohl nicht.

Die Pest wird in Deinem Tagebuch zum ersten Mal am 24. Mai 1665 erwähnt: »Von da mit Creed zum Kaffeehaus, das ich seit langem nicht mehr besucht habe — wo alle vom Rückzug der Holländer reden — und von dem Heranwachsen der Pest in dieser Stadt und von den Arzneimitteln dagegen; einige sagen dies, andere jenes.«

Am 10. Juni wird Deine Wachsamkeit schon größer, unter den Opfern sind Bekannte von Dir: »Nach drei oder vier Wochen ist die Pest in der Stadt angekommen, aber wo soll es begonnen haben, wenn nicht bei meinem guten Freund und Nachbarn, Dr. Burnett in Fanchurch Street.« Am nächsten Tag ist die Haustür vom armen Dr. Burnett zu: »Er hat aber großes Wohlwollen unter seinen Nachbarn geerntet; da er es als Erster entdeckt hat und sich freiwillig hat einschließen lassen.« Der Eintrag vom 25. August kündigt den Tod von Dr. Burnett an.

So hautnah erlebe ich den Tod in Zeiten des Covid-19 nicht, aber ich bleibe trotzdem, wie vom Bundesrat aufgefordert, zu Hause. Du hingegen bist die ganze Zeit unterwegs, als Sekretär, auch als Heiratsvermittler (wobei die Hochzeit wegen der Pest abgesagt werden musste; übrigens passiert meiner Mutter und ihrem neuen Partner genau dasselbe —heute heiraten Leute mit über 70 noch, weißt Du!), nach Woolwich hin und zurück (»All diese wichtigen Personen fürchteten sich vor London, argwöhnisch gegenüber allem, was von dort kommt [...] Ich musste ihnen erzählen, dass ich in Woolwich sesshaft war.«), spielst Billard, schläfst in verschiedensten Gasthäusern. Zu Deinen vielen Beschäftigungen gehören auch Flirten und Seitensprünge mit Schauspielerinnen: Du beschreibst diese liaisons in einer scheinprüden, leicht entzifferbaren Mischung von Spanisch und Französisch.

Gleichzeitig erzählst Du lapidar von dem Aufhäufen der Toten: in der Woche vom 15. Juni »sind an der Pest 112 gestorben, 43 die Woche davor«; am 29. Juni »beträgt die Sterblichkeitsrechnung 267« und »der Hof ist voll von Fuhrwerken und Menschen, die dabei sind, die Stadt zu verlassen«; in der Woche vom 20. Juli sterben 1'089 Menschen und am 31. August sind es bereits 6'102. Am 26. Juli denkst Du daran, ein Testament aufzusetzen.

Woher erfuhrst Du diese Zahlen? Durch die unzuverlässigen searchers of the dead — oft arme, alte Frauen, erkennbar an ihren weißen Stöcken, die in betroffene Haushalte eintreten und deshalb gesondert leben mussten? Hast Du an die Ziffern geglaubt? Hattest Du eine Ahnung, wie viele Leute außerhalb von London der Pest zum Opfer gefallen sind? Die Zahlen sind ungeheuerlich, vor allem im Verhältnis zu einer Stadtbevölkerung von einer halben Million (London zählt heutzutage über 8 Millionen Einwohner!). Ab und zu spürt man Deine Betroffenheit, eine Pause bevor Du Dich anderen Angelegenheiten zuwendest.

Wir, Bürger des 21. Jahrhunderts, sind in der Lage, die Zunahme der Infektionsraten und der Totenbilanz jede Minute zu verfolgen, und zwar überall auf der Welt, von Amerika bis zu den Antipoden (die zu Deinen Lebzeiten noch nicht »entdeckt« worden waren). Das Ganze ist sehr bedrückend, aber irgendwie irreal: für Dich muss es noch unverständlicher gewesen sein – unsere Mediziner wissen ja, wie sich Epidemien ausbreiten –und doch hast Du das Abriegeln der Häuser, die Beseitigung der Kadaver, die Verwandlung der Brachen außerhalb der Stadtmauer in Friedhöfe mit Deinen eigenen Augen beobachtet; zum Glück müssen wir das nicht mit ansehen, nur lesen, wie sich lang und schmerzvoll und einsam das Dahinsiechen hinter den Mauern der Krankenhäuser und Altersheime vollzieht.

Und die Welt draußen in den Straßen Londons beschreibst Du so: »Aber wie wenig Leute ich jetzt sehe, und diese laufen wie Menschen, die von der Welt Abschied genommen haben.« Von der Bootsreling aus siehst Du Menschenmengen an Beerdigungen und Scheiterhaufen am Ufer der Themse.

Am 30. September, als die Epidemie schon am Abflauen war, schreibst Du folgendes: »Ich muss sagen, dass, was Freude, Gesundheit und Gewinn betrifft, die letzten drei Monate bei weitem die besten, die ich in einer Periode von zwölf Monaten je erlebt habe [...] außer der großen Pest gab es nichts, was mich martern konnte.«

Die letzte Erwähnung von der Pest im Jahr 1665 lautet am 22. Dezember so: »Das Wetter war frostig kalt diese vergangenen acht oder neun Tage, also hoffen wir in der nächsten Woche auf eine Abnahme des Pest; andernfalls mag Gott uns gnädig sein, denn sonst wird die Pest sicher nächstes Jahr andauern.«

Dann war es aber vorbei, kaum noch eine Spur davon in Deinen Aufzeichnungen. Und das spendet mir Hoffnung, gerade in einer Zeit, als Regierungen hier eine allmähliche Lockerung der Ausgangssperre in Aussicht stellen.

Vielleicht erzähle ich Dir später vom Nachher . . .

Mit vorzüglicher Hochachtung
Simon Pare

PS. Da selbst mein Wahnsinnsapparat nicht jedes Buch aus den Bibliotheken bis hierher in mein Covid-Schlupfloch zaubern kann, musste ich Deine Tagebucheinträge selber übersetzen. Mögen deutschsprachige Leser und Leserinnen es mir verzeihen!

29 November 2019   'Metropol' by Eugen Ruge

Rowohlt 2019
432 pages

My overwhelming response to this book is to applaud a brilliant and essential work of literature. Although I enjoyed 'In Times of Fading Light' and its depiction of East German family life before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it occasionally dragged a little. Here, the slow drip of time is intrinsic to a tense account of the one and a half years that Eugen Ruge’s grandmother Charlotte and his step-grandfather Wilhelm spent awaiting almost-certain death in Room 479 of Moscow’s famous Hotel Metropol.

First, the factual basis. In his introductory remarks and epilogue, Ruge writes that he always thought of his paternal grandmother as Mexican. He only discovered her Russian past as a Comintern operative due to chance remarks and a historian’s suggestion that he look up his grandmother’s file in Soviet archives. The file contained, among many other items, a letter of denunciation by Hilde Tal, a friend of his father’s, Wilhelm’s first wife and Charlotte’s colleague; and this was the thread that led him through the labyrinth of the files to produce what he calls this ‘shot at the truth’.

The characters in the novel are all real-life figures, their presence in the Hotel Metropol or at the Stalinist show trials of 1936 and 1937 well documented. This is true of the author Lion Feuchtwanger’s much-criticised visit to Russia, his attendance of a trial and subsequent article in Pravda – and his stay in the room next to Charlotte and Wilhelm’s. Eugen Ruge’s great achievement is to bring them to life and give an impression of what this extraordinary period of uncertainty, suspicion and terror in the suffocating huis clos of the Hotel Metropol might have felt like.

Excluding the author’s explicit interventions in the prologue and the epilogue, the novel is narrated from two main perspectives – those of Charlotte and judge Vassiliy Vasilievich Ulrikh, victim and executioner – with four chapters related from Hilde Tal’s viewpoint. Facsimiles of some of the central documents from the file are also included at the relevant points, and there is a glossary.

German communists Wilhelm and Charlotte (codenamed Jean and Charlotte Germaine; her other surname is Umnitzer, from her first marriage to Eugen Ruge’s grandfather, Erwin) have been couriers for the Comintern’s ultra-secret International Liaison Department (OMS) since 1928 and are on holiday on the Black Sea coast when they learn that Alexander Emel, aka Moissej Lurie, has been arrested. Unbeknownst to them, it is Hilde Tal’s denunciation of their friendship with Emel and his wife Isa that leads to their being frozen out of the OMS training college outside Moscow where they live and work and then abruptly transferred to the Metropol. Charlotte has to learn fast to make ends meet by identifying promising queues to stand in, bending the rules and looking for a job. Meanwhile, Wilhelm initially visits the library to keep up with the roll-call of arrests, trials and executions via the authorised German-language newspapers but he becomes increasingly catatonic with despair until he barely leaves their room.

Charlotte manages to secure a job at VEGAAR, the Foreign Authors’ Publishing Cooperative, rising from assistant to translator to editor (helped by an affair with Otto Bork, the director, until he discards her) as the Terror cuts swathes through the workforce. A whispered name signals each new arrest, but otherwise no one dares discuss it. No one knows who has informed on whom; no one knows who’ll be next. Each disappearance prompts not only the fear but growing disbelief. Whereas Wilhelm and Charlotte initially reason that the purges must be justified, they are shaken by the arrests of irreproachable communists with a lifelong record of loyalty and bravery. As Eugen Ruge notes in the epilogue: ‘This is a story about what people are willing to believe and capable of believing.’

The Hotel Metropol is not just a setting and a focus for the action – or what passes for action, since the overall sensation is of stasis and suspended time – but a character in its own right. Nights are punctuated by sounds of lovemaking from other rooms and knocks in the early hours, followed the next morning by sealed doors, creeping ever closer to Room 479. Each time, the commotion subsides but the fear lingers and builds. To counter the ever-present threat of eavesdroppers, Wilhelm and Charlotte turn up the radio or go for a walk around the block.

Daytime is almost worse. The group of former OMS colleagues who assemble in the hotel dining room eye one another up silently and distrustfully, wary of any sign of familiarity, let alone friendship, their number swelling and then shrinking until only Wilhelm and Charlotte are left. Ruge encapsulates the indifference to a British OMS agent’s removal thus: ‘The waitress clears away his place setting. One less to serve, which is fine by her.’
While reading, I had a nagging sense of a similarity with a Thomas Mann novel. While 'In Times of Fading Light' has something Buddenbrooks-like about it, here it is 'The Magic Mountain' that comes to mind, and specifically the centrality of the sanatorium and its all-pervading lethargy. I also detected shades of other works. The most obvious parallel would be with Arthur Koestler’s 'Darkness at Noon', but there is also something of Emmanuel Carrère’s intertwining of fact and fiction as well as featuring the black, absurd, extremely Russian humour of Gogol’s 'Dead Souls', for example.

This latter aspect is beautifully embodied in the pathetic, larger-than-life character of Vassiliy Vasilievich Ulrikh, a senior judge under Stalin who was, Ruge notes, responsible for over 30,000 death sentences. His callousness is equalled by his ridiculousness as he struggles to cope with the enormous pressure of his position while seeking to exploit the opportunities it offers. For example, he takes a taxi to a suburban tryst with a Polish woman desperate to save her husband’s life. Arriving at her squalid room after a frenzied, scrambled escape from some would-be child attackers during which he loses his only medal, he is unable to perform – and then, returning to his office, celebrates his supposed incorruptibility (no quid pro quo!) by signing the husband’s death warrant. His wife Anuschka’s response to his clumsy lovemaking overtures is to kick him in the ribs, and his greatest worry is that a precious butterfly he recently caught will wilt in the ‘killing glass’ before he has a chance to pin and mount it.

Taken together, all these examples of arbitrary cruelty, material hardship, the grinding wheels of bureaucracy and the devotion/gullibility of an entire population create an indelible atmosphere and sense of place. Moscow is also portrayed as a city that is ice- and mud-bound in winter and a scene of feverish, gargantuan construction projects in spring and summer.

Ruge has a wonderful turn of phrase too. ‘Taking the tram is cheaper than walking’ becomes Charlotte’s motto when she can’t repair a pair of shoes; he sums up the mechanical dancing after the arrest of half the band playing at the hotel’s New Year’s Eve party as ‘the waltz of the damned’; and – my personal favourite – he talks about the ‘rat of doubt’ that gnaws away at Charlotte and Wilhelm, ending the novel, as they keep watch from their bed, with the following words that may be interpreted both metaphorically and literally: ‘Then it appears. The rat.’

Charlotte and Wilhelm survived. Out of the blue they were given Swiss passports with assumed names and travelled to Paris on French visas. Interned as enemy nationals when war broke out, they somehow procured berths on one of the last ships taking Jewish refugees to Mexico, returning twelve years later to the GDR, where they never mentioned what had happened at the Hotel Metropol.

4 July 2018   'Ich war Diener im Hause Hobbs' by Verena Rossbacher

Kiepenheuer und Witsch 2018
350 pages

‘It was a filthy day. This is a simple tale. I found him over in the summerhouse.’
The first and last parts of that sentence are (fictionally) true, but the second most certainly is not. It takes a great deal of craft to convincingly stitch together a butler’s chance observations and untrustworthy memories into the story of a tragedy that reserves its dénouement until the final page, but Verena Rossbacher has succeeded.

A graduate of a prestigious Dutch training school for butlers, Christian Kauffmann (or ‘Krischi’ as he was known growing up in Feldkirch) finds a position in the Hobbs’ plush villa in a chic area of Zurich. Bernadette and Jean-Jacques Hobbs, a well-known lawyer, live there with their two children Raphael and Aurelia, Jean-Jacques’ twin brother Gerome, who paints, and an army of servants.

While Christian goes about his daily routine, contented and detached – he wishes for nothing so much as an orderly life as he follows his motto of never making himself the centre of attention – he begins to observe strange goings-on, culminating in a confrontation between the two brothers that leads to Gerome’s eviction under a cloud of veiled threats.

Deception, counterfeiting and naivety are the central themes of this intriguing Bildungsroman. The first-person narrator, Christian, is constantly playing catch-up, understanding significant details long after everyone else has grasped the ramifications. He’s so obsessed with being inconspicuous that he forgets to observe anyone but himself, and Rossbacher foreshadows his naivety in the prologue: ‘Was it due to the circumstances or was it my lack of perspicacity? […] Can you be guilty if you couldn’t foresee the consequences of your actions?’

The denouement is also a skilful piece of writing, laying out what Christian has understood while preserving the mystery of the Hobbs’ household dynamics intact: ‘Yes, all that was left were uncertainties and between them a few scattered facts. […] Two twins and a woman. One earns the money, the other entertains. One’s married, the other’s good in bed. An arrangement. Everyone’s happy. Two boys poking a witch. That ought to be avoided. She begins to weave her threads. A woman who falls in love. She chooses the same type of man. The twins argue. One goes, the other stays. He has only ever been a guest in his own home.’

We can only speculate as to the motives and thoughts of these three shadowy central characters, just as we wonder whether Christian really is the ‘simple soul’ he insists he is. He admits in the prologue: ‘All in all, I have not been a credit to my profession.’ How? Because a butler is supposed to protect his master?

The language is rich, the psychology of the characters convincing, and the topic of deception and gullibility finely woven into a tale that is told largely in flashback but with moments of great immediacy. I also think that the twist of setting such a tale in upper-class Zurich and provincial Austria could play well in the British book market with its long upstairs/downstairs literary tradition.

Verena Rossbacher was born in 1979 in Vorarlberg and grew up in Austria and Switzerland. She has written two previous novels, 'Verlangen nach Drachen' (2009) and 'Schwätzen und Schlachten' (2014), neither of which has yet been translated into English.