Michael Hofmann reads his father’s book

Michael Hofmann

After thirty years teaching German literature and writing radio plays, my father suddenly began to write fiction. Our Conquest was his fifth book in five years, and the second to be translated into English. (He has since published three others in Germany). The sense of the possessive in the title is objective: it is we who have been conquered. The book plays for roughly the first 24 hours of peace in a small town in Germany, on a Wednesday in May 1945; and yet, as we shall see, and as the translation has it, a little fortuitously, because the word is Ruhe (‘quiet’), ‘there’s never a moment’s peace in our town.’ There is a famous concrete poem/ calendar which goes something like Krieg/ Krieg/ Krieg/ Krieg/ Mai/ Juni/ Juli, but to the world of my father’s novel, things are rather less clear-cut and progressive. There, the fighting is over, but the war is still everywhere.

It appears that the small town of L. has been taken overnight. Or so it is said. In one of several weirdly sexual phrases, ‘quite nonchalantly, the foreign soldiers are flowing in among us.’ It is the same situation as in Kafka’s short story, ‘An Old Manuscript’, where the imperial capital wakes up to find itself captured by foreign soldiers, ‘nomads’: only that, with my father, these soldiers are never actually seen at all. This is much to the regret of the book’s central figures, or, better, of its voice or speaker, the ‘we’-form that narrates. This plural voice, at once chorus and protagonist, is that of some boys of an unspecified age and indeterminate number. There seem to be enough of them, for instance, to take their friend Edgar in their midst or between them, but then again, they talk of ‘our suit’ and ‘our cap’ and even ‘ourself’. They are the sons – or possibly just the son – of Frau Imbach, whose name, tacked onto that of the town of L., makes up my father’s birthplace. My father does not set riddles, and I have little aptitude for such things: I offer the fact to the reader in all humility.

As well as this narratorial ‘we’, which might go into the Greek dual, but, in German or English, continually discomfits the reader, there is ‘our friend’ Edgar (although ‘we’ are not his friends or friend: everywhere in the book is this failure of symmetry and equilibrium, of anything that might be thought reliable or trustworthy). Edgar has been ‘bombed out’, and has been sleeping in his friends’ shed, or, just lately, with them and their mother in the cellar. One would say he was older than they are, and hungrier; at once more astute and purposeful and less self-serving; that his social roots were at least one-and-a-half classes below theirs; that he is a Huck to their Tom. On both sides in different ways, their relationship depends on guilt, weakness, secrecy and inequality. They seem at times to be little more than his hostages; while he, with his family and home destroyed, is an unfortunate and an inferior. For all his ‘tall, fair-haired, pristine skull’, he suffers black-outs and headaches and periods of dizziness; indeed, hunger and pallor and loss seem to threaten him with becoming ‘transparent’. I cannot begin to say which predicament is closer to my father’s, Edgar’s or ‘ours’ – or if they are both equally remote from it. I know practically nothing about his story, his background, his war; only that he was just into his teens when it ended. But a teenager like Edgar, or like the wet Imbach boys? Or neither? In that misalliance – somehow, however many they are, they aren’t a collectivity, aren’t even the ‘two or three gathered together in my name’ of Scripture – the only characters I can identify come out of books: they are Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Hansel and Gretel, the children of Hamelin, perhaps even Oliver Twist and Fagin.

Anyway, what VE Day brings for these children is a chance to get about in town, to indulge their long cooped-up curiosity, morbidity, acquisitiveness and shame. There is a chance of spotting a black soldier; of finding a fiendish substance called Butterschmalz at the slaughterhouse (I can’t believe it’s nothing worse than my dictionary’s ‘run butter’); of wheedling her dead husband’s suit from a widow; of delivering a letter to an associate of their missing father’s, who owned and ran a whip factory; of looking round the church and the theatre; of participating in a grisly atonement rite towards Edgar which involves digging up his buried knife with the swastika in the handle, heating it, and ritually wounding themselves (here, too, there is the weird presence of an erotic element); of finding out who is alive and dead and missing and hurt; of experiencing for themselves the obscene geography of the town: Wundenplan (Wound Place), Siechentor (Sickness Gate), Kellerwiese (Cellar Meadow), though the very worst places have harmless names. Together, they walk through the town of L.

Our Conquest is an episodic book, opportunistic and casual, scenes following each other chronologically and geographically, as they do in my father’s first translated novel, The Spectacle at the Tower, but with the incidents not subordinated to a single climactic incident (there, the spectacle itself), merely following each other in a series. The point is not character revealing itself in action, it is not even the eventual or abrupt revelation of one particular horror, it is the process – as elsewhere in my father’s work – of the curious, obsessive, cruel and mechanical mind digging around in a soft and disordered world. Neither the world nor the consciousness can be said to have truly changed during the process of inquiry, or investigation. Both are much as they were before it began: there can be no question of ‘loss of innocence’ or anything like that, even the blurb’s description of the book as ‘a civilian war novel’ strikes me as a little rosy. The Imbachs and Edgar resemble children as much or as little as the scarred children’s choirs in some of my father’s radio plays, or as the wizened little adults in some mournful genre painting. Altklug is the German word: literally ‘old-clever’, as wise as the old, an old head on young shoulders, precocious. Their dialogue moves as purposefully as a flow diagram. They ask questions like scrupulous logicians: ‘For instance, which theatres have they played in, how long their longest applause lasted, what sort of people they’ve been while acting and helped by costumes, how they hit on the idea of theatre as a solution at all and then made it through to the theatre, and if they always know in advance what they exclaim or sing on the stage, suddenly everything at once, or if memorising it takes months and months. Or whereabouts in them or near them are the many persons they portray, when they themselves aren’t on the stage – in the morning, for instance, or after a performance?’

If the questions about applause and memorising are innocent enough, the real thrust of the interrogation and that hard word ‘solution’ is absolutely without remorse: it is that of a prosecuting counsel shredding a man’s alibi – viz. that he is himself, an actor, and not any or all of the questionable parts he would have played under the Nazis. The actor turns out to be a terrifying figure, with a dramatically unstable identity, an ability to disappear and reappear at will, and a belief that the truth can be left behind like a part once played. He is a typical figure of my father’s: at once powerful and ridiculous, with some physical details but profoundly nebulous, and endowed with the necessary metaphysics of his profession. Each of the ten or twelve episodes in Our Conquest uncovers such types, each is an investigation of part of the world; the result may be no more than the sum of its parts – but nor is a ride on a ghost-train.

When I used the word ‘opportunistic’, I meant it to describe the shadings of humour, of the fretful, the macabre and the speculative, that darken each episode. One of my father’s gifts is to scatter among images or lines of thought that are mysterious or wilful or decorative, some that are so challengingly straight and direct that the reader has to treat them as allegorical. In the slaughterhouse episode, there is a little excursus in which is described, first how the music-school was relocated in the slaughterhouse, and then how the butcher turns up, proclaims his love of music, and wants to take the music-teacher out. Even leaving history aside (say, the artistic preferences of Goebbels), one reads this as the Germany body propositioning the German soul, or, even worse, one part of that soul propositioning the other. Or there is the feeling of the Imbach boys that ‘a new long suit, which we’d be able to pull right over [our wounds] isn’t something to be scorned’: Wirtschaftswunder and suppression of the past. Or, my own favourite, without commentary: ‘The church is just as it was before, including the hole torn in the back of it that we always like to look at.’ Wherever the world is cut like this – incongruity, failure, poor timing – it seems to bleed humour. On the very first page, one blinks and mistrusts the translation, but yes, ‘Perhaps, for all the talk there’d been about it, our defence up on the Hoher Hain had been overlooked’ (my italics) is right: what a fantastic and ignominious fate! Later on the same page, in the pirating and parroting of their geography classes, the speakers say: ‘we live in an indeterminate, almost characterless upland region, imperceptibly polluted and sooted by a few not-so-distant industrial centres.’ But here, what my father wrote is rather funnier, because the region is ‘unobtrusively’ or ‘discreetly’ polluted (unauffällig, not unmerklich). Imperceptible pollution isn’t funny: it isn’t ‘the imperceptible charm of the bourgeoisie’ either. All these grotesques and humoresques may seem rather sophisticated, but there are also some moments that are beyond explanation, being perfectly simple, as when, asked by the actor what part ‘we’ would like to play, ‘we’ reply ‘the ocean’.

It is a peculiar moment, like a glimpse of blue sky from the ghost train or the darkened chamber of horrors, a tiny and unexpected escape from this rigged-up world, where there’s a dead dog under the dead lilac, a buried knife in the Amselgrund, a dark liquid seeping out from under one of the doors of the slaughterhouse, and Herr Schellenbaum found in rigor mortis, and having to be buried in a sitting position. I talked about inquiring and excavating earlier, but really, there are numbered manhole covers over each of these exhibits. I used to think it might be the theatre behind it: a well-lit scene, the latest stage of the pilgrimage, a new interlocutor, a cardboard cut-out prop named for the convenience of the audience – Wundenplan, or Siechentor; or perhaps the radio dramas that my father has written for 35 years – a medium still more gruesome, still more mobile, Kunstkopf aping geography. But isn’t it more the gaiety and violence and lust and unpredictability of the fairground, a garish non-nature, checkpoint for children and adults, animals and freaks, a thrilling and spilling, packed and faked and stuffed world that elicits real responses? In the scenes of Bosch and Brueghel the world of war and the fun of the fair are seen to be neighbours. The children in Beirut don’t look especially downcast.