(Current fiction & past quality fiction)
“Everyone is born into a certain era. I wouldn’t want to see anyone faced with the circumstances that prevailed at the time, when there were few or no alternatives.” — Gunter Grass
As you know, Günter Wilhelm Grass was a Kashubian-German novelist, poet, playwright, illustrator, graphic artist, sculptor, and recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature. Grass, who identified as Kashubian, was born in the Free City of Danzig.
At 17 Grass was drafted into the Waffen SS. “I did not know that it was a criminal unit,” wrote Grass. “I thought it was an elite unit.”
Into that same era were born others in the working-class districts of Berlin who became young men cut adrift from the adult world who slept in warehouses and fleapit cinemas and spent whatever money they could hustle as soon as they got it. A novel of these drifters “Blutsbrüder” (Blood Brothers) by Ernst Haffner was banned by the Nazis one year after publication in 1932. Documents show Haffner and his publishers were ordered to Goebbels’ Reich chamber of literature in the late 1930s. Then Ernst Haffner disappeared, all traces erased.
Now “Blood Brothers” (Other Press) by Ernst Haffner has been nobly translated into English by Michael Hofmann. The translator is known for his works of Franz Kafka, Joseph Roth, Hans Fallada, and many others. In 2012 he was awarded the Thornton Wilder Prize for Translation by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is the author of several books of poems and essays, including “Where Have You Been?” (2014).
Metrolit, a small German publishing house, decided to re-publish the novel. The widely circulated tabloid Bild am Sonntag ran an article headlined “The most mysterious book of the year,” and called for those who knew the author’s fate to come forward. But no one got in touch, according to The Guardian. The British paper noted: “Even more remarkable, then, that its publication now has won such enthusiastic reviews. Der Spiegel described it as ‘like a karate chop: hard and direct, but true,’ while Literarische Welt called it ‘a real discovery.’”
Examiner observes that the novel is one of few from that era not laced with political themes and rhetoric. “Blood Brothers” simply tells the story of impoverished outcast youths who banned together in stealth while the world watched the Third Reich goosestep.
Peter Graf, the editor of the English re-print, says, about “Blood Brothers,” that he has never published a book that has triggered so many reader responses. “For a long time accounts of the 1920s and 1930s used to be overshadowed by the rise of the Nazis and the war that followed. So it is very exciting to read an account of that period in which politics doesn’t take center stage. The “Blood Brothers” didn’t care about the war – they just wanted to survive.”
The Guardian reports that much of the book’s energy comes from the good times, when the boys pack into disreputable beer joints, downing schnapps and roaring with camaraderie, or climb over youth detention center walls or hide under train carriages. But this is an angry book, too, one that’s furious not so much with individual adults – some of whom are decent and kind – but with institutions that treat the troubled youth like a plague.
The publisher has provided a sample of the straight forward writing employed by Ernst Haffner, a journalist and social worker:
“At the stroke of ten, they’re all close to their billet. Three of them are at the gate. The others are waiting nearby in the passage, to nip in as soon as the watchman opens the door. Before they even hear the night-watchman, there’s a furious growling and yapping behind the door: the guard-dog.
“Then the door is unlocked, and one by one they sneak inside. The watchman locks the door after them. The bitch howls with rage and disappointment. She doesn’t understand her master. Normally she is under orders to go for anyone’s legs, and just now, with this collection of deeply suspicious individuals, she is kept on a short leash.”
“The night-watchman slopes on ahead with the angrily glinting dog. The Blood Brothers bring up the rear after a respectful interval. The door of the low storehouse is unbolted, and Jonny has to put down his two marks. Then the old man goes through all their pockets. He’s looking for matches or lighters. In case one of the scapegraces should get it into his head to smoke in there . . .
“With all that straw and dry wood around; that would be a right old firework. The guard dog tried a parting snap at the boys. But the nailed collar reminds her that only non-paying guests were to be shredded.
“The boys are just finding their way around the dark windowless space when the old man locks them in. The freed dog sniffs crossly at the crack between the floor and the bottom of the door. Just let them try and get out.”
Examiner recommends “Blood Brothers.”