Feed on

“I liked the idea of the outdoors.  I mean I liked the thought of it being there: the trees, the grass, the birds in the bushes, all that.  I even liked looking at it, sometimes, from the highway, say, through a car windshield.  What I didn’t much care for was being out in it, unprotected.”—Philip Marlowe

It is no secret that “Benjamin Black,” author of nine noir crime novels, is the pen name of highly esteemed Irish author John Banville, author of sixteen literary novels and winner of more than twenty of the writing world’s most prestigious prizes, including the Man Booker Prize for The Sea.  In these literary novels, Banville works as an artist, producing thoughtful and beautifully articulated novels at the rate of about one every two years.  As Benjamin Black, Banville has written an additional eight noir crime thrillers, seven of them starring a pathologist named Quirke, and in these novels he is seen as a craftsman, rather than an artist, a recognition of the distinction between the genres and the fact that his crime novels are produced at a much faster speed, approximately one a year. The Black-Eyed Blonde, his ninth noir mystery, is his first novel written from the point of view of Philip Marlowe, the popular hard-boiled detective featured in six novels and a series of short stories by one of the earliest noir novelists, Raymond Chandler, between 1939 and 1958.  Hard-drinking and often down-on-his luck, detective Philip Marlowe is shown as a loner who says what he thinks, a man with few friends and no long-term love in his life.

As The Black-Eyed Blonde opens, Marlow is looking out the window of his office, near the corner of Cahuenga and Hollywood.  In straight-forward and smart prose he notes that “it was one of those Tuesday afternoons in summer when you wonder if the earth has stopped revolving.  The telephone on my desk had the air of something that knows it’s being watched.”  A beautifully dressed young woman with long legs is waiting for the light to change so that she can cross the street.  “She looked to the left and right and left again – she must have been so good when she was a little girl – then crossed the sunlit street, treading gracefully on her own shadow.”  In few words, Black creates a mood and a setting through the offbeat observations of the speaker, Philip Marlowe, who promptly adds a twist so that the reader does not misunderstand his mood:  “So far it had been a lean season,” a comment which he follows with a list of his latest dull and unrewarding cases.

Raymond Chandler (1888 - 1959)

All this changes when the sound of high heels on the wooden floor in his waiting room “gets something going” in him.  “I was about to call to her to come in, using my special deep-toned, you-can-trust-me-I’m-a-detective voice, when she came in anyway, without knocking.”  Further description of her appearance and her gestures, create a black-and-white-movie scene, and few readers will be able to resist filling in the picture of this “black-eyed-blonde” with a favorite actress from the period. However “pulpy” Black’s writing may be, in keeping with that of Chandler, it certainly ranks with the best of pulpy, involving the reader and immediately setting up Marlowe’s newest adventure without using obvious clichés.  The “black-eyed blonde” is a Mrs. Clare Cavendish, who wants Marlowe to find Nico Peterson, a movie agent, who disappeared mysteriously two months ago.

The elegant Gillette Swanson House, now demolished, might have been a model for the house where Clare Cavendish lives.

As the novel develops, Marlowe becomes better acquainted with Clare Cavendish, the daughter of Dorothea Langriche, an Irish woman who made a fortune by developing a line of rose-scented perfumes. Upon visiting the elegant family mansion where Clare Cavendish lives, Marlowe also meets Clare’s brother Rett and Clare’s husband Richard Cavendish, and his horses, all of whom also appear to live there.  Their interrelationships and their self-satisfaction confirm for Marlowe the enormous gap between their lifestyles and his own.  When Clare, upon further questioning, tells Marlowe that she not only saw Peterson a week ago but that she was present when he died, Marlowe realizes that something is really wrong with this story.

It is easy to imagine Marlowe meeting Clare's mother here at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Photo ca. 1940.

Marlowe uses his contacts with a few of the police to find out more information, going to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office to view scenes of Peterson’s death, then meets with a friendly cop to discuss the case.  He is concerned because everyone seems to know he is working on the case, and he suspects he is being watched.  He is uncomfortable when he learns that Clare knows the woman he had hoped to marry, and equally uncomfortable when Clare’s mother calls him to meet her at the “Ritz-Beverly Hotel.” The Cahuilla Club, to which everyone in Clare’s social set seems to belong, has a checkered collection of wealthy patrons and managers, he discovers.  Not only does everyone there seem to know everyone else, but those in charge seem able to control the outcomes of virtually every disagreement in ways which benefit themselves, doing whatever is necessary to get what they want.

A body in shocking condition is discovered at the Encino Reservoir.

At the halfway point, the novel changes from being a lightweight period mystery, however well written and however much fun, to noticeably darker fare.  The first love scene in the novel suddenly changes without warning when Marlowe learns that a body has been discovered at the Encino Reservoir. The condition of the body, someone Marlowe knows, is shockingly bloody, indicating a terrible beating involving the breaking of bones in the face before the throat was slit.  Again, overlaps occur among the different subplots, involving the question of Peterson and whether he is alive or dead. Before long, Marlowe himself is in danger, and he does not know why.  When he is very nearly killed, he and a police friend begin to investigate drug running, the family backgrounds of people Marlowe thought he knew, the suicide of a suspect, and still more deaths.  The dark twist at the end of the novel may surprise even sophisticated fans of noir.

The art deco LA County Coroner's Office in Boyle Heights.

As “pulp fiction” goes, this is probably among the best, though it is a long way from John Banville’s literary work.  Still, critics and most fans of Raymond Chandler have celebrated the closeness of Black’s version of Marlowe to that of the original.  From the brand of cigarettes that Marlowe smokes to the continuation of the on-going story of Marlowe as he was shown in the last of the Chandler novels, Black’s depiction of the characters and period are praised for their accuracy and similarity to Chandler’s work.  Though the novel’s cold aloofness may put off some readers, it is consistent with the novel’s theme:  “People get hurt unless they keep a sharp lookout.”

ALSO by Benjamin Black:  A DEATH IN SUMMER and     VENGEANCE

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://www.rte.ie

Raymond Chandler’s photo appears on http://www.telegraph.co.uk/

The Gillette Swanson House, now demolished, resembles the description of the house where Clare Cavendish and family are living. http://skyscraperpage.com/

The entrance to the Beverly Hills Hotel, ca. 1940, has not change much.  This is probably the model for the “Ritz-Beverly Hotel” here. http://www.martinturnbull.com

A body in shocking condition is found at the Encino Reservoir:  http://www.encinonc.org/

The art deco County Coroner’s Office in Boyle Heights is seen here:  http://en.wikipedia.org

“An actor had no repose.  He did not even exist, unless he kept moving, and the nature of his own existence was something he had never been able to face, even in sleep.  So he had a discontinuous mind…in which nothing had either cause or consequence…The whole world was one unique event, himself, and everything [in it] a play.”—John Wilkes Booth, on Good Friday, just before the assassination.

In 1963, author David Stacton was listed by Time Magazine as one of “the best American novelists of the preceding decade,” his name ensconced among luminaries like John Updike, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Ralph Ellison, and Bernard Malamud.  Stacton’s novel of The Judges of the Secret Court, the story of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and its aftermath, had been published to great acclaim in 1961, when the author was only thirty-seven.  Only thirty-nine when he appeared on Time’s list, Stacton had been writing serious literary and historical fiction under the name of David Stacton for more than a decade, alternating his literary novels with potboilers and pulp fiction, many of them published under the name of Bud Clifton. His well-researched historical novels ranged in subject matter and time from early Egypt under Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti to the career of Wendell Wilkie in the early 1940s, while his potboilers ran the gamut from cowboy novels to murder mysteries set in the present.  A prolific author, whose Wikipedia page lists an incredible twenty-three novels published in the eleven years between 1954 and 1965, Stacton has now, sadly, almost completely vanished from American literary history.   He died in 1968, at the age of forty-four, when he was just getting started.

David Stacton

Now republished by New York Review Books Classics, Stacton’s The Judges of the Secret Court, the only one of his novels currently in print, provides readers with a sense of what they have been missing, unknowingly, all these years – and this novel is a wonder.  Filled with real characters acting like real people as they deal with the aftermath of the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865, and the ensuing tumult, the novel shows through its characters the continuing resentments between the North and the South, as it recreates all the tensions and the growing horror of the times.   Several characters share their personal points of view to give verisimilitude throughout the novel.  When, just six days after Lee’s surrender, on Good Friday, twenty-seven-year-old southerner John Wilkes Booth shoots President Abraham Lincoln at Ford Theatre and escapes into the countryside, trying to reach the South where he expects to be celebrated as a hero, the reader understands why. The author provides much background for Booth, from an acting family, whose own father was mentally unbalanced – and, not incidentally, a bigamist.  Wilkes Booth’s older brother Edwin, the most successful actor in the family, had been the primary support of the family, and Wilkes was clearly jealous.  The author spends little time on the assassination itself, disposing with it in two sentences: “Opening the door, [Booth] slipped inside, took out his derringer, cocked it, and shot the President.  The time was 10:15.”

John Wilkes Booth

Part II begins as Booth, with broken bones in his leg after his leap from Lincoln’s box to the stage, works his way through the countryside, trying to reach the South.  As the limits of his plans become obvious, even to him, he reminds himself that he is an actor, and he must not be underestimated, no matter how injured or ill he becomes.  Everyone with whom he has any contact, no matter how innocent s/he may be, however, becomes a potential co-conspirator. The newly sworn President, Andrew Johnson, tries to maintain order during the emergency, but he must jockey for power with an unusually aggressive Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, whom we watch as he immediately establishes martial law, giving himself unprecedented powers to pursue the murderer and all those he considers to be “co-conspirators.”  As the search for Booth evolves and continues, the author develops all the characters and their backgrounds, leading to Booth’s final realization that he is trapped. “He was going to die.  This was not a performance… Did they not realize it had all been a game?”

Edwin Booth as Hamlet, his most famous role.

As Part III begins, Edwin Booth, Wilkes’s brother in New York, realizes that “it was the poor people down in Washington who had to bear the brunt of [the] guilt…Even if innocent, even if spared mere human malice, they were still caught up in the inexorable malice of events…It was less a process than a parable.  He could only watch.”  Stanton’s craven machinations, his determination to have show trials, to deny habeas corpus ( a tactic permitted during military emergencies), and to have military trials instead of civilian trials, all affect the reader’s understanding of what has happened.   The novel becomes more and more compressed and more involving as the action comes to its conclusion. Part IV is a moving commentary on military justice and the power of those in control.  The trials of several well-developed characters, innocently caught up in the swirl of events, people who have no real evidence against them and who would undoubtedly have been declared innocent if civilian trials were held, become victims of Stanton’s ambition, and readers would have to have a heart of stone not to respond to the predicament of a boarding house owner who is unwittingly caught in the action.

Ford Theatre, Presidential Box

Ultimately, the reader is left with the thought that in this amazingly vivid saga of the aftermath of President Abraham Lincoln’s death, many of the real people involved were playing roles.  The author himself had changed his name legally from Arthur Lionel Kingsley Evans to David Derek Stacton, for reasons unknown.  John Wilkes Booth regarded himself as a hero, in the dramatic sense, after his assassination of the President, and was surprised when there was no great, climactic outpouring of support for him.  President Andrew Johnson inspires sympathy, especially when the extent of Sec. of War Edwin Stanton’s machinations are revealed, and Stanton ultimately becomes even more of a villain than Wilkes Booth in this real-life drama.  The author is careful to keep his well-researched details accurate, and the only “fudging” of the facts that I found came with Edwin Booth’s desire to keep a portrait of John Wilkes Booth by John Singer Sargent in his apartment after Wilkes’s death.  The only portrait I have found of Booth by John Singer Sargent was actually a portrait of Edwin Booth himself, not of his brother.  Sensitive and well-researched, this is a do-not-miss historical novel.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://richard-t-kelly.blogspot.com/

John Wilkes Booth’s photo is from http://www.nytimes.com

Edwin Booth, as Hamlet, is shown on http://en.wikipedia.org

The Ford Theatre, Presidential Box,  appears on http://www.nytimes.com

Note: Mario Vargas Llosa is WINNER of the Miguel de Cervantes Prize in 1994, WINNER of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2004, and WINNER of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010.

“The earth is round, not square.  Accept it and don’t try to straighten out the crooked world we live in.  The gang [of extortionists] is very powerful, it’s infiltrated everywhere, beginning with the government and the judges.  You’re really naïve to trust the police.  It wouldn’t surprise me if the cops were in on it.  Don’t you know what country we’re living in, compadre?”—Colorado Vignolo, to his friend, Felicito Yanaque.

In his most recent novel, Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa returns to a simpler narrative style and plot scheme from what he used in his previous, more complex biographical novel, The Dream of the Celt, the story of Irish revolutionary Roger Casement, set in the Congo, the Peruvian Amazon, and Ireland in 1916.  In The Discreet Hero, by contrast, the author writes for the sake of the story itself and the lessons it provides – an old-fashioned story in that we read it to find out what happens to Peruvian characters with whom we can identify as they act like ordinary people solving problems which reflect the reality of their Peruvian settings – in this case, Piura, a village in the northwest corner of Peru, and Lima, Peru’s capital and major city.  The “story” here is actually two parallel narratives, running in alternating chapters and involving two characters, each of whom tries to be “discreet.”  In the first plot, Felicito Yanaque, the owner of the Narihuala Transport Company, manages fleets of buses and trucks which operate throughout Piura, a village near the Pacific Ocean in the northwest corner of Peru.  Felicito, fifty-five, takes great pride in his work, always remembering his father’s dying words: “Never let anybody walk all over you, son.  This advice is the only inheritance you’ll have.”  When he leaves for the office on this most important day, however, he finds, attached to his door, a letter demanding $500 a month for protection against “being ravaged and vandalized by resentful, envious people and other undesirable types.”  He must, of course, be discreet about the message.

At the same time, in Lima, Don Ismael Carrera, the owner of an insurance company, is meeting with Rigoberto, his assistant, who wants to retire three years ahead of schedule.  Ismael has a particular reason to want to delay Rigoberto’s retirement.  His two sons, twins, have not inherited the abilities of their father or grandfather and have lived lives of complete dissolution, involving car crashes, rape, debts in Ismael’s name, forged receipts, and even the emptying of the petty cash box. Ismael has paid off the sons and now plans to disinherit them.  The person who will inherit everything will be the woman Ismael unexpectedly plans to marry, at the age of almost eighty.  The bride is thirty-eight years younger.  Rigoberto will be a key to making all this possible, as Ismael needs a witness to the marriage after which he plans to take a long honeymoon to an unknown destination, and have Rigoberto manage the company and his sons – the hyenas – when they discover what their father has done.  He, too, must, of course, be discreet.

Photo of Piura, monument of La Pola, given to the city in 1870 by President Jose Balta

Vargas Llosa, author of seventeen novels and now approaching age eighty himself, is clearly having great fun as he develops these two story lines, and at times the stories alternate happily between farce and soap opera as complications arise, and unexpected twists and turns send one or both of the plots careening. Eventually, coincidences bring the two plot lines together.  Though the emphasis is on plot, almost exclusively,  the author does bring in issues of marriage, the “comfort” of affairs outside of marriage, and occasionally even love.  He spends significant time illustrating issues of parents and children – from Ismael’s “hyena” sons, to Felicito’s questions regarding whether one of “his” sons is really his, and to issues yet another character, Rigoberto, has with his son Fonchito, who is very bright – and maybe perfect.  Fonchito, however, is conversing regularly with a “devil” whom no one else can see. The moral complexities of living in a culture in which bribery and extortion are common practice add to the difficulties of survival, and the reappearance of Sgt. Lituma (from Death in the Andes [1993] and Who Killed Palomino Molero [1986]), and Captain Silva (from Who Killed Palomino Molero) adds to the fun for fans of Vargas Llosa’s work.  For those who understand Spanish, the discovery that the regional police chief is referred to as Colonel Rascachucha says it all.  (This name is translated within the novel, but I won’t spoil the fun by telling here.)

Lima, Peru.

Class differences also play a strong role in this plot.  Mabel, Felicito’s lady love, who has been set up in her own place, is pointedly described as “not a whore,” but a “call girl,” with her own house and certain privileged clients.  When Ismael decides to marry someone “below” him, not only is the world surprised, but so, too, is the prospective bride.  In the other plot,  Felicito has done the “honorable” thing as a young man by marrying his seventeen-year-old girlfriend who tells him that she is pregnant, but a few years later, he has  “found love” elsewhere, while remaining married; his wife tolerates the arrangement.  Ismael’s twin sons have managed to stay out of the newspaper only because the family has paid off reporters, and no one outside the family knows that one of them has run over a pedestrian in Miami, then fled to Lima while out on bail, something that a less wealthy son would have been unable to do.

Piura is in the upper NW corner. Lima is in the center, on the coast. Double click to enlarge.

Felicito’s decisions to challenge the extortionists make him a hero in Piura, but when he must deal with a bombing and a kidnapping, the complications raised by the extortionists are compounded.  His “exemplary” behavior, however, does provide him with an acceptance into the Club Grau, a group he’d given up on joining because he “wasn’t white.”  Vargas Llosa develops all the complications – then, unexpectedly and coincidentally, combines the two plot lines, bringing Piura and Lima together and happily resolving the problems.  The last scene, in which Rigoberto, his wife, and his son take off for a European vacation provides the final resolution and the final laugh in this novel written for the pure pleasure of writing it, an entertainment on all levels for a reader looking for pure enjoyment, a rare commodity these days.


Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://portal.uc3m.es/

Piura, a photo by Edgar Peru, is found here:  http://www.panoramio.com/

Lima, on the Pacific Coast, is shown here:  http://www.itascacg.com/

The map of Peru appears on http://www.infoplease.com/ Double click to enlarge.

Colin Barrett-YOUNG SKINS

Note: This book was WINNER of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, WINNER of the Guardian First Book Award, and WINNER of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.”

“My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk.  A roundabout off a national road, an industrial estate, a five-screen Cineplex, a century of pubs packed inside the square mile of the town’s limits. The Atlantic is near; the gnarled jawbone of the coastline with its gull-infested promontories is near….I am young, and the young do not number many here…”

Colin Barrett, a thirty-two-year-old author from rural Knockmore in County Mayo, Ireland, sets his six stories and one novella in the fictional town of Glasbeigh, located near the Atlantic and “the gnarled jawbone of the coastline,” with its gulls.  In many ways Glasbeigh’s location resembles that of his own childhood in Knockmore, and his stories of the “young skins” who have been born and bred and probably will always live in Glasbeigh not only ring true but come alive in surprising and often darkly humorous and ironic ways.  His main characters, young men in five of the stories, and only slightly older in the last two, have the same urges and needs of all young people, but these youth are limited in their outlooks by the paucity of opportunities, and while some may have dreams, they are most often small dreams which they hope to achieve within their current constricted lives.

“The Clancy Kid,” which establishes the tone and the themes for the entire collection, opens in a pub, where the speaker, Jimmy Devereux is sitting with his friend Tug, whose real name is Brendan.  “Brendan” was the name of Tug’s older brother who died as a thirteen-month-old toddler.  As a result, Tug “was bred in a family warped by grief, and was himself a manner of ghosteen,” never able to shed the vision in the cemetery of “the lonely blue slab with his own name etched upon it in fissured gilt.” Overweight and sexually innocent, he keeps his hair almost shaved, and dresses in imitation of Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now.”  Here the author’s use of descriptive detail to convey important themes and ideas is obvious, and when the reader then learns more about Jimmy Devereux, Tug’s friend, the conflict that will erupt in the story becomes clear.

Knockmore, the rural town where the author grew up. Knockmore means "Big Hill."

Jimmy Devereux claims to have an off-and-on girlfriend even though someone else got her pregnant last year.  She had the baby, just after Christmas.  Jimmy has recently run into her again at a club, which included girls with “explosively frizzed hair” and “donkeynecked boys…who wear their shirtsleeves rolled up past the elbows, as if at any moment they might be called upon to pull a calf out of a cow’s steaming nethers.”  Now she has appeared yet again, “and if it wasn’t for the acne scars worming across her cheeks she’d be a beauty, my Marlene.”  She is accompanied by Mark Cuculann, the father of her baby. When Jimmy and Tug depart the pub, they are about to deal with two very different situations, their actions showing how they both think and act under completely different circumstances, which lead the reader to understand them and see them both as human, despite their personal limitations. The story ends on a melancholy note which stresses all that is missing in their lives and contrasts them with children who still have chances to live a life of the imagination – or not.

In "Bait" Matteen has real skill as a pool hustler.

This perfect introduction to the collection shows the first of many characters dealing (or not dealing) with their lives and their environment on their own.  Most are, by nature, limited in their abilities to handle problems.  “Bait,” the second story, shows another pair of characters, the protective and thoughtful Teddy and his cousin Matteen.  Both are also lonely and looking for love.  As in the case of Jimmy and Tug, one character, Teddy, is the “minder” of the other, less thoughtful one.  Here, however, the characters’ roles change from what we see in “The Clancy Kid, moving in ironic directions.  Though Matteen has a real skill as a pool hustler and is able to earn money, the girls they meet have devious and nasty plans of their own.  “The Moon,” a story about Val, a bouncer, and his right-hand man Boris, shows them as, through no fault of their own, they also come under the spell of women who have more insights into the world than they do.

In "The Moon," Val and Boris take Martina and Joan to the Mule River, shown here, to enjoy the scenery. Photo by David Medcalf, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License. See credits at end.

Fate and the accidents which occur as a result of a character’s choices, misjudgments, and lack of insight into their own limitations create unexpected twists and turns to the story lines, often leading the reader to feel sympathetic toward these characters even when they bring on their own disasters.  The story of Bat, a worker at a Maxol service station, in  “Stand Your Skin,” is the saddest of the collection, a man who by complete accident becomes a loner, hiding his face behind a motorcycle helmet and thick waist-length hair.  “Calm with Horses,” a ninety-page novella, has two main characters, Dympna and Arm, both minor dealers in marijuana, who get their supply from Dympna’s uncles,  who live in the most rural of areas and grow a particularly potent strain of marijuana in their basement.  All of the characters live on the edge, physically and emotionally. Here the reader gets to know Dympna and Arm as they act violently sometimes and with great sensitivity at other times – in Arm’s case, acting lovingly with his disabled son.  Again, it is an act of fate – or miscommunication – which leads to disaster, and in this story, horrific violence.  The final two stories, “Diamonds” and “Kindly Forget My Existence” focus on somewhat “older” people, in their thirties and forties, as they face crises in which they show their inability to deal with their lives’ changes.

In "Calm with Horses," Dympna's two uncles grow a potent variety of marijuana in the basement of their house, and Dympna and others are dealers.

Writers who straddle the line between tragedy and comedy seem to live in greater numbers in Ireland than anywhere else that I know of, and it is rare that I become so enchanted by an author’s unique style and insights into big themes that I can hardly wait to get to the next story.  The novella, “Calm with Horses,” for all its violence, never abandons character, and the final story, about two men trying to decide whether to attend the funeral of a woman they both loved provides an appropriate ending and vision of hope.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://www.irishtimes.com/

Knockmore, meaning “Big Hill,” is where the author grew up.  See:  http://mountainviews.ie/

Matteen had skill as a pool player and regularly earned money at the pubs.  The photo is from http://sfxplorer.com/

In “The Moon,” Val and Boris take Martina and Joan to the Mule River to enjoy the scenery.  http://www.geograph.org.uk/ © Copyright David Medcalf, licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Dympna and Arm become dealers for Dympna’s uncles, Hector and Paudi Devers, who grew a potent variety of marijuana in the basement of their rural house. https://valetudocafe.wordpress.com/

“The eight boys, [Blood Brothers], have spent the whole endless winter’s night on the street.  As so many times before: homeless.  Always trudging on, always on the go.  No chance of any shut-eye in this weather.  Day-old remnants of snow, the occasional thin shower of sleet, everything nicely shaken up by a wind that makes the boys’ teeth chatter with cold.  Eight boys, aged sixteen to nineteen…on their own.”

At last, a novel recently discovered in Germany and written in 1932, at the end of the Weimar Republic, presents a picture of Berlin as it really was, not as it appears in the sterilized portraits released by Hitler’s army and staff beginning a year later, when Hitler officially came to power.  Like many other cities recovering from a Depression, Berlin did have its seamy underside, along with the poor, the homeless, the street gangs, and the petty criminals dependent on pickpocketing and small thefts in order to eat.  Poor women, of course, had their own resources, with prostitution and the bar scene playing a big role in their lives.  Whole sections of the city were occupied at night by the wandering homeless, including young teens. The best that many of them could hope for, as they looked for a place to keep warm, seemed to be the temporary hostels, filled with smoke and the stench of unwashed bodies, where they could stay, and perhaps get some sleep, during brutally cold days.

Contributing books for a book burning: From the German Federal Archives: bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B0527-0001-776.

Ernst Haffner, the journalist who wrote this novel, uses a collection of individualized vignettes, connected by the overriding story of two of the young men, Ludwig and Willi, to show Berlin as it really was.  Little is known about Haffner.  The city registry shows that he was a resident in Berlin between 1925 and 1933,* and some speculate that Haffner, because of his insights into the nature of the lives of the homeless, especially the young homeless, might have been a social worker.  At the time of the book’s publication in 1932, it attracted considerable notice in Germany for its honesty and its insights, and it was well reviewed in German newspapers, but it was outlawed by Hitler the following year, and virtually every copy was burned in the Nazi book-burnings.  Haffner, according to the records, was summoned by the culture ministry of the Third Reich in 1938, after which he disappeared, with no record of his residence anywhere in Germany after that.  Not a single photograph of Haffner remains.*  Somehow at least one copy of the book survived, however, and in 2013, it was republished in Germany and released at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Now translated into English by the esteemed translator Michael Hofmann and published by Other Press, it fills out the picture of life in Berlin by incorporating the lives on its fringes – its poor, its jobless, its gangs, and its homeless.

Cold, homeless boy, much like those in this novel, a photo which transcends time and place.

The novel opens on a cold winter day as eight boys, who consider themselves “Blood Brothers,” are waiting at a welfare office where it is warm.  They have been up all night, out in the cold, and as the number of people waiting there is large, they can sleep relatively undisturbed without being noticed.  When twenty-one-year-old Jonny, one of the “brothers,” arrives with cigarettes, the group, awakened, knows that he has money and that they will get food that day.  Leaving in groups of three so that they do not attract attention from the authorities, they go out to find breakfast at a bar that is as close as they can get to “home.”  There they can get broth, liver sausage, rolls, and potato pancakes, and then smoke and snooze some more.  Another bar serves for the evening meal.  On this particular night, Jonny has arranged for them to spend the night in a dark warehouse, as long as they are out before the work crew arrives the next morning.  The author’s descriptions are depressingly specific – the crates, the straw they sleep on, a boy’s jacket used as a pillow, the mice, and the uncertainty each feels as no one knows what tomorrow will bring.  Their interdependence is their only way of surviving.

Boy races to the train, a way of escape.

Gradually, the reader comes to know some of the characters individually, especially Ludwig and Willi, who become the main characters, their stories alternating with those of the majority of the gang.   Willi has escaped from “the institution,” and the unsophisticated Ludwig has fallen for an old scam and ends up in jail, gulled by an older man.  The description of how Willi rides the rails to Berlin by hanging on the axle under a train car carries the ring of truth, and shows how the young and naïve learn from older, more expert homeless youth who share their knowledge.  Ludwig, on remand in prison for something that was the result of his gullibility, receives a package of treats from the gang, something that makes his predicament more bearable.

Ludwig's time in prison, which seems interminable, changes his perspective.

In a scene that illustrates the conflicts these young people have, Ludwig is transported to serve his short prison term by a kind man who treats him as a human being, someone who is not interested in publicly humiliating him.  Ludwig is grateful, but when he gets the chance to escape, he is so desperate he cannot resist hurting the only official who has ever been kind to him.  When he later runs into Jonny by accident, his pleasure at returning to the gang and his appreciation of the gifts they have for him are immeasurable.  Later, his accidental meeting with Willi affects his future life.  They both feel that the gang is changing and becoming more preoccupied with the unearned fruits of their labors as pickpockets of the poor and as petty criminals, and Ludwig and Willi decide to look for a new direction.  Their way is not smooth, and many difficulties arise as the novel continues.  Both make mistakes.

Bluts-Bruder, the German edition.

The fates of other individualized characters from the gang show the fickle nature of fate and the difficulties which groups acting as gangs can create from within: The influence of peer pressure and group action leads to a loss of individuality and the loss of a sense of responsibility for the actions of the group.  The importance of having the right papers and the limitations placed on those who do not have them are also problems for the boys.  Ultimately, Haffner creates a full picture of about dozen young people and the lives that they have chosen or had thrust upon them as a result of their poverty and lack of opportunity.  His depiction of this sector of Berlin’s lower life is real, clear, and uncompromising, far different from all the Nazi photos of clean-cut, well-pressed blonde youth celebrating the arrival of Hitler.  An important and realistic book that adds to the true picture of life in Germany in the early 1930s.

* This information comes from  http://www.nytimes.com/,
an article by William Grimes

Book-burning, 1933: from the German Federal Archives: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14597 / CC-BY-SA, from May 11, 1933

Photos, in order: Collecting books for a book burning:  From the German Federal Archives: bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B0527-0001-776. http://www.bild.bundesarchiv.de

Cold, homeless boy, much like the boys in this novel, a photo that wrings the heart:  http://www.travel-studies.com Photo from 1935.

Racing for the train: http://www.travel-studies.com/

Hands in jail:  http://akarpinski.hubpages.com Source:  http://www.eji.org/

Book-burning: from the German Federal Archives:  Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14597 / CC-BY-SA, from May 11, 1933. http://www.bild.bundesarchiv.de/

ARC: Other Press

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