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Francis Nenik: Reise durch ein tragikomisches Jahrhundert (Journey Through a Tragicomic Century)

This book is a work of non-fiction but as it is called narrative non-fiction by the publisher (erzählendes Sachbuch in German, which sounds much better), as it reads very much like a novel, as the subject, though real, was completely unknown to me and I can therefore imagine him as a fictitious character and as it is by the very interesting pseudonymous German writer, Francis Nenik, here it is.

The character is Hasso Grabner (link in German), who was born in Leipzig in 1911. He knew nothing about his father, though he briefly learns of his death many years later, Money is tight so he is sent away to foster parents.

He gets involved in politics at the age of twelve, stealing ammunition and spying on right-wing paramilitaries. His job involves working for the Central Journal of Occultism and the Monthly Periodical on Research in the Entire Esoteric Sciences. However, he manages to blag himself a traineeship at the German Booksellers’ Academy and is even offered a work experience trip to Brazil. He turns it down, fearful he will miss the forthcoming German Revolution.

He joins the Communist Party and he is very much involved in activism for them. It is only a matter of time before the Weimar Republic falls. Unfortunately, for the Communists, it falls to Hitler. the Communists go underground but are picked off by the Nazis. Initially he avoids arrest though his pregnant girlfriend, later wife, is arrested. He is eventually caught, sentenced to four years in prison and sent to Waldheim Prison. He is immediately arrested on his release and sent to Buchenwald. In Buchenwald he manages to get job in the library, thereby avoiding the brutal outside work. Like other Communists he only gradually learns of changes, such as Stalin’s various betrayals.

All this is being told at a furious pace, as Nenik jumps from one event to the next with considerable rapidity. He is not concerned with the niceties of a biographer’s task, such as details of every event, background details and copious references and footnotes. In short, as mentioned, this is a book written by a novelist, not a biographer.

Meanwhile back in Nazi Germany… He is released and works as a labourer, trying a bit of sabotage. He is eventually given the task of redeeming himself (in the eyes of the Nazis) and sent to a punishment battalion. However, Nenik gets distracted in Greece. The Italians invaded Greece and made a mess of it so the Germans piled in. Nenik has great fun mocking all participants: the Greeks because of their internal struggles, more intent on fighting other less than ideologically pure Greeks than the Germans and, for those Greeks abroad (including the King), having a good time, the Italians,always impeccably turned out and the British and Germans playing a war of attrition. The only ones who come out really badly are, inevitably, the Jews, who had been left alone for most of the war but are now sent off to the extermination camps, and the locals who get bombed.

Our hero is involved and he continues his sabotage with other Communists, while Churchill and Stalin carve up the world. (Nenik has no time for either.) The problem for Hasso and Co is getting home but he does, with Nenik giving us the gruesome details. We follow his career for the rest of the war and then his very mixed career in East Germany, one minute up, the next down. He is hauled before commissions, demoted to the lowest of the low one minute and then given a top job the next. Part of it, of course, is that he is not ideologically pure and is very much his own man, which the East Germans do not like. On the other hand, he is very efficient. In the end, he has had enough and becomes a writer.

Of course, his career as a writer is not without controversy. For example, he goes to a lyrical evening where the young Volker Braun is present. Things get out of hand when he supports a poet who is not ideologically correct. Everywhere he goes, he is happy to go against the orthodoxy even while trying to be a good socialist. However the authorities just see him as a bad socialist. In my blood I have a lust for arguing and enjoying pointed wit, he comments. He continues his controversial career till his death in 1976.

Nenik tells us, in the afterword, how he came to write about the unknown Hasso Grabner. He wanted to write about a forgotten writer so he went to the library and took down the Encyclopaedia of German-Language Writers. From the Beginnings to the Present Day. He looked up every writer mentioned in the book on the web, hoping to find one who has no web presence and therefore could be said to be forgotten. Every single one does have a web presence. He tries other methods – we get a detailed description – before choosing Grabner.

It was an inspired choice. Many writers have quite boring lives. Grabner did not. Indeed, as mentioned, he seems like someone straight out of a novel. Indeed, if you had written a novel where a character, in East Germany, had one minute been the lowest unskilled worker and the next the head of a major construction company and then a few days later back as an unskilled worker before again rising to the very top in a short while, you would have been criticised for being unrealistic but this clearly did happen to Grabner.

This books works very well primarily because it is such an interesting story but also because Nenik has no qualms about giving his views on various topics, such as the participants in the war in Corfu, Churchill and Stalin, the East German hierarchy and so on. He makes no pretence at being objective, as a good biographer should. He clearly has a soft spot for his subject. While he does detail sources at the end of the book, he does not indicate where he obtained specific information from. In short, this book was never intended to be a formal, official biography but, rather, a novel which would be fun to read and, incidentally, resurrect a forgotten German writer.

This book appeared in the first batch of books published by a new publisher, V&Q Books, headed by Katy Derbyshire, known as one of the foremost translators of modern German books into English (she translated this book) and for her now retired blog love german books. I am looking forward to many more interesting German authors from this imprint.

Publishing history

First published in 2018 by Voland & Quist
First English translation in 2020 by V&Q Books
Translated by Katy Derbyshire