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Alfred Andersch: Sansibar oder Der letzte Grund (Flight to Afar)

I am not too keen on either of the titles. The English is pretty meaningless, except that the main characters are trying to flee Nazi Germany but not too far away, only over the water to Sweden. The German means Zanzibar or The Last Ground/Base, though Grund can also mean reason, so it is something of a play on words. Zanzibar, as we shall see represents something of the dreams of the nameless boy of the book but I have no idea what he means by the second part of the title. Fortunately, the rest of the book is much better. The story is set in Rerik, a small coastal town on the Baltic sea, in 1937. There are five main characters. Three of them are local. Knudsen is a fisherman, fishing mainly for cod. He is also a communist. He is married to Bertha, of whom he is very fond, but who is a bit simple. As a result, he is reluctant to leave her for any period of time. This will become important for the book. He is assisted by the nameless boy. He is fifteen years old and dreams of going away to sea. He has fantasies about Huckleberry Finn, stealing a canoe and sailing down the Mississippi, and other seafaring books, such as Treasure Island and Moby Dick, as well as going to exotic places such as Zanzibar. The third local is the parson, Helander. He had been injured in World War I, losing part of his leg and having a prosthesis fitted. This will give him trouble during the course of the book. He had been married but his wife had died young and he had not remarried. In his church he has modern statue of a boy reading and The Others, the term that everyone in the book, including the narrator, uses to refer to the Nazis, have told him to get rid of it. As he has not, they are coming the following day to take it away and destroy it. The two outsiders are firstly Gregor, who we later learn, has the real name of Gregorij. He was born in Russia but claims that he is not Russian. He is, however, a Communist Party official and he has come here to speak to Knudsen. He also plans, after carrying out his assignment, to flee Germany and go to Sweden. The final person is Judith Levin, a well-to-do Jew who also wants to flee Germany, to escape the Nazis.

Andersch tells the stories in little chunks, each one devoted to one (occasionally more) of the characters. We learn of Knudsen’s concern for his wife and, as a result, the fact that he has no desire to go across to Sweden with Judith, Gregor and the parson’s statue. He is also sceptical about the Party. Gregor has come to tell him of the new party plan – a five member cell, with different cells not knowing one another, so that if one group is caught, they cannot reveal the name of others. Knudsen tells Gregor that that is not going to work in Rerik, as he is the only communist left. Gregor accepts this and makes his plans to get Knudsen to take him to Sweden. The boy want to go off to sea but his mother insists that he serve a two and a half year apprenticeship with Knudsen, before joining the navy. He wants to go and work on one of the ships that sails in the Baltic but knows that, at his age, he cannot either get a passport or sign on to the crew without his mother’s written authorisation (his father is long since dead) and she is not going to give it. The parson feels he has a duty to save the statue, even if he stays behind and faces the consequences. Indeed, he sees it as something of a moral imperative to save the statue. He manages to persuade Gregor, who is, of course, an atheist, of the need to do this.

Gregor himself has become disillusioned with the Communist Party and also fears for his safety under Nazism. He feels that he has done his bit and is now ready to leave. As with the others, he has no real plans beyond getting away from Germany. Judith, of course, has a very real reason for getting way. She had delayed her departure because of her sick mother but, the previous day, her mother had killed herself so as to enable Judith to flee. She is Jewish through her mother but her father was a Christian and, indeed, Judith has been baptised. As Gregor tells her, that will not help her, not least because her passport has been stamped Jewish and she looks Jewish. She does appear to have a fair amount of money with her and a Degas painting of her mother’s but she has no clue how to go about leaving Germany. She had come to Rerik because she felt that, unlike the ports of Stettin and Rostock, there will be few if any officials here. Unfortunately, as we learn, there are few if any boats here. She happens to be in luck, as a Swedish ship pulls into the port and the crew stay in the guest house she is staying in.

Andersch tells us a first-class story of five people with their own reasons for doing what they are doing and cleverly, the Nazis remain as The Others, very remote, with only the brief appearance of a motor patrol boat. The fear of them for all, of course, is very strong. The conflicts that do occur are between the characters of the book, including the Swedes and the landlord of the guest house. The book does not seem to be as well-known as it should be but is readily available both new (in the UK, US and Canada) and used.

Publishing history

First published 1957 by Walter
First English translation 1958 by Gollancz