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Katharina Hacker: Die Habenichtse (The Have-Nots)

Given the amount of other people who have been killed in the world in the past fifty years, I remain surprised at the impact that the 9/11 events had on the world. That they would affect US literature is a given but that other nationalities would be affected so much still remains a surprise. And just in case people think that is because I was so remote from it all, I would point out that I was about 200 yards from the White House when the attacks took place. This novel is very much a case in point. It essentially starts with the 9/11 attacks. Jakob is a lawyer. He has met Isabelle and then lost touch with her and was always hoping to meet her again. When he does, to the joy of both of them, she invites him to a party. He was planning to be at a meeting in the World Trade Center on that day – 11 September 2001 – but moved the meeting so he could be back for Isabelle. His colleague, Robert, was not so lucky. Indeed, Jakob was three times lucky. He re-established his relationship with Isabelle (they would soon get married), he missed the 9/11 attacks and it was he, rather than Robert, who got to go to the London office of his law firm.

This novel has been compared to the US literary brat pack novels of the 1980sBright Lights, Big City, Less Than Zero and the like – where the heroes tend to be detached, indifferent and drug users. This is not quite accurate, though certainly has a grain of truth in it. Hacker’s novel is both more intelligent and more complex than the US novels. She follows three groups of individuals, all of whom, as we soon guess, are destined to meet and will meet as neighbours on Lady Margaret Road in Kentish Town in London. The first we meet is a family of four. Interestingly enough, though we see the parents, the focus is on the children, Dave and Sara. The father is unemployed, a drunk and abusive, definitely towards his children and probably towards his wife. The wife is a thin woman who works as a cleaner and tends to avoid confrontation with her husband. Dave is at school and tries to defend his younger sister, who is locked in a room all day and is not sent to school though she is of school age. She may be mentally retarded. Jim lives next door in a flat owned by Damian. Jim ran away as a teenager and has earned his living working for Albert selling drugs and supplementing his income with petty crime. He occasionally helps Dave when Dave is being threatened by his father. Though a drifter, he has a girlfriend, Mae, whom he is very fond of. However, it seems that he attacked her with a knife when drunk or stoned (he himself has no recollection of this) and Mae has disappeared. He is looking for her.

The main focus, however, is on the Berlin characters. Jakob works as a lawyer for a firm concerned with restitution of property taken illegally from people, primarily (though not exclusively) Jews during the Nazi period and primarily (though not exclusively) in the former East Germany. Isabelle works for a design agency. It was originally part-owned by Hanna, who has since died of cancer. Her current partners are the somewhat shadowy Peter and Andras, a Hungarian Jew, who is sent to Germany by his parents when he was fourteen and who is in love with Isabelle. Isabelle will continue working for them when she accompanies Jakob to his post in London. His job is the same, as there seem to be expatriate Germans or those of German descent, living in Britain and trying to reclaim property taken from their families during the Nazi period. While Jakob is concerned with his job, his relationship with his boss, Mr. Bentham, German-born and gay, and his life in London, Isabelle becomes, more or less unwillingly, involved with the local life particularly with Jim and Sara.

The literary brat pack heroes were detached from their environment and really could not have cared less for the world outside their narrow lives. It could certainly be said that this is more a US phenomenon than a European one. However, the characters here all feel their own kind of dislocation – Andras and Jakob because they are Jewish, Jakob, Isabelle and Andras as they are in a foreign country where they do not fit in (Andras is always talking about going back to Hungary), Bentham because of his homosexuality, Jim as a runaway, Sara and Dave as the victims of abuse. But there is a sense that though this form of dislocation is important – not being part of the norm – there is another, stronger type of angst at work. This is partially because of the changes in the world, of which the 9/11 attacks are symptomatic, but also because they are of a generation, as were the 1980s US writers, which does not quite know where it fits in and sees what is happening in the world as quite beyond them. Coupled with this is an undercurrent of violence, both distant, as in the 9/11 attacks, and local.

Fortunately, this novel is, unusually, available in English, thanks to the very wonderful Europa Editions (which, despite its title, is New York-based, though the brain child of two Italians). As I said above, it is far more intelligent than the US literary brat-pack novels and far more complex as well. Indeed, though set in London and Berlin, it can certainly claim to be one of the best 9/11 novels, up there with The Falling Man. Hacker is not afraid to confront the problems of violence and alienation head one, while dealing with other issues such as the exclusion felt by Jews and homosexuals. She deals with memories, both personal ones but also the issue of the memories of Jews whose families and lives were destroyed by the Nazis and how they reconcile them with their current lives. She does not paint a rosy picture. Virtually everyone in this novel is faced with a life that they seem to be losing control of. Indeed, Andras, who finally accepts that he is not going to have Isabelle and moves in with Magda, is the only one who has any semblance of a happy future awaiting him. For the rest, the world they face is getting too much for them.
Translated by Helen Atkins

Publishing history

First published 2006 by Suhrkamp
First published in English in 2007 by Europa