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Hans Henny Jahnn: Das Holzschiff (The Ship)

This is the first book in Jahnn’s huge but unfinished trilogy. The first book is in print in German and there were plans to republish it in English in 2015, though the English edition is a substantially abridged version. The second book is unlikely to be translated into English as it is some 1600 pages long, meant to represent the tenth chapter of the first book, but Jahnn clearly got carried away. There is also an unfinished epilogue. The English title of this book is The Ship but the German title is The Wooden Ship. As the wooden construction of the ship is important to the story, I am not sure why the wooden dropped out of the title in English.

The story starts with the eponymous ship arriving at an unnamed port. As the port is foggy and the ship will later pass through the English Channel on the early part of its journey, I am guessing that it is one of the North German Baltic ports. It is a magnificent, large three-master wooden sailing ship, with red sails. The customs officers are in awe of the ship, which is built out of teak and oak by the legendary and improbably named Lionel Escott Macfie. However, almost immediately, there is an air of mystery about her. Goods are loaded and unloaded and no-one seems to know what they are. The owner comes and goes and no-one is sure who he is. The ship seems to wait a long time in port. Finally, it seemed that it was time to leave but then there was a fight. Someone was bleeding. Some of the sailors were dismissed and quickly replaced. No-one seems to know the reason for the fight but it seemed to have something to do with the cargo. Finally, the captain, Waldemar Strunk, was ready to leave. On board was his daughter, Ellena, who was accompanying him, and her fiancé, Gustav, who was not. However, at the last moment she wants him to stay. The captain refuses to let him stay but he hides and the ship leaves with him.

But this is a strange ship. Gustav and Ellena find mysterious passages and suspect that the owner may also be a stowaway. The cabins – there are fifty – are rarely used but they still have a central locking and unlocking mechanism. The Supercargo – we later learn that his name is Georg Lauffer – also seems something of a mysterious man. He knows that Gustav has stowed away but has not seen him nor has anyone told him. It is he who who tells the captain which way to go but, he claims, he only receives his instructions piecemeal from some offshore location. He knows that the ship has strange passages but does not know why. Gustav soon makes friends with the crew, particularly the young sailor Alfred Tutein, who warns him of danger, but then, later, he keeps himself to himself, barely seeing even Ellena, who has decided to have a cabin on her own. The captain and the supercargo start disagreeing, for example, the supercargo does not like the crew telling tall tales while the captain considers this is quite normal. Ellena seems to spend some time with the supercargo and, when she disappears, the supercargo is the last person to have seen her and is suspected, particularly, by the crew, as being responsible for her disappearance and, possibly, her death. When Gustav decides to investigate, he finds even more strange mysteries in the ship.

This is certainly an unusual book, though the idea of a mysterious ship is not particularly new. However, Jahnn focusses not just on the mysteries of the ship – which are never explained – but on the relationships between the different protagonists – the captain, the supercargo, Gustav and Ellena and the various members of the crew, particularly Alfred Tutein, Klemens Fitte, the carpenter, and the cook. These relationships seem to change, sometimes frequently, so that we never know exactly who is with whom. Some of these issues will be explained in the next, very long book. However, that book, is not available in English.

Publishing history

First published 1949 by Weismann
First published in English by Peter Owen in 1970