Gert Hofmann - Homeland, a mixture of lower-middle-class Gemutlichkeit and concentration camp: rose gardens, barbed wire and guard towers
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Gert Hofmann, Before the Rainy Season, Trans. by Edna McCown, Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.
«Gert Hofmann's latest novel could be titled "Twenty Years of Solitude." Before the Rainy Season, in Edna McCown's readable translation, is about an old German soldier living on the edge of the Bolivian rain forest. Mr. Hofmann, who was born in 1932, is one of those German writers who wear the weight of history on their shoulders. Most of the time, it doesn't keep him from dancing. His novels and stories refine ugly episodes of recent history into lucid parables. Here he examines the psychic process known as dissociation, the ability to seal off compartments in the mind. Psychiatrists say it is what makes survival possible for victims of child abuse and also for perpetrators of crimes against humanity. But lying to oneself is hard work. At the age of 54, the old soldier is so exhausted by the effort of denying his ugly past that, when a young visitor from Germany arrives to tell him it's safe to go home again, he doesn't have the energy to pack. Instead, he delivers his life story to this young man, in a long, convoluted monologue in which the need to confess and the need to conceal alternately propel and delay the inevitable conclusion of an artfully paced narrative.
Heinrich von Hartung, the old soldier, did something unspeakable on the Russian front during World War II. In 1948 he came to Bolivia and bought an estate in the remote province where several other "kindred spirits" from the Third Reich have also found refuge. (Mr. Hofmann coyly avoids the term "Nazi" throughout.) Here the exiled German proceeds to re-create his homeland, a mixture of lower-middle-class Gemutlichkeit and concentration camp discipline: rose gardens, bird sanctuaries, barbed wire and guard towers. Even those little iron dwarfs, Gartenzwerge, that epitomize house-proud German kitsch are re-created in flesh and blood; "garden dwarves" are what the nasty old coot, a racist to the end, calls the Aymara peasants who work for him.
In Bolivia, Hartung marries into the local elite and brings over his family from Germany -- his father, a general who remains a rather nebulous figure, and a brother who is 20 years younger than Hartung. This brother is the most original figure in the book. Unlike Peter Schneider, whose unsettling novel "Vati" ("Dad") stuck close to the known facts of Josef Mengele's life, Mr. Hofmann plays fast and loose with history. What he does, in effect, is to put Klaus Barbie and Che Guevara into the same family. The old soldier's younger brother, raised in Bolivia, joins a group of revolutionaries while still in his teens. He helps them kidnap a local politician. The rest of his companions are caught and executed. He goes to prison for most of his adult life. It's his escape in November 1968 (a year after the historical death of Che), and his murder in front of his brother, that set the older man to talking at last.
From Kafka Mr. Hofmann has learned how to fix on a single detail and backlight it so that it casts mythic shadows. The scene in which the brother is arrested, with his childhood toys in a corner, is a powerful allusion to the hundreds of Latin American teen-agers who have paid for their idealism with their lives in recent decades. ("A child's room deserted in haste, there are several others like it in this country.") The passage is all the more moving for being told in the cold, sarcastic voice of the older brother.
The two brothers, born a generation apart, are both historically plausible but also -- another device Mr. Hofmann has learned from Kafka and from fairy tales -- two halves of a dissociated psyche. When they start to swap clothes, it's a sign that defenses are crumbling. As individuals, the older one is all denial, refusing to admit either past crimes or current ones -- such as his exploitation of dirt-poor peasants; the younger brother is all pity and guilt and ineffectiveness. "Basically I'm good for only one thing: to take the blame," he says in summing up his life. In the realistic-mythic connection between the brothers, Mr. Hofmann has again recast history as disturbing parable. The notion of one generation growing up to assume the blame for another's unacknowledged crimes has relevance well beyond German history.
Mr. Hofmann is less adroit with the Latin American setting. On the allegorical level, Hartung's rundown hacienda in the jungle is a correlative of the old man's moral decay, a Bolivia of the mind. On the travelogue level, Mr. Hofmann is glad to remind his readers how foreign and how poor Bolivia is. But his tone is so unrelievedly grim (although picturesque) that it irritates, like those third world documentaries on German television in which the locals are laughing and mugging for the camera while an earnest voice-over tells you how wretched they are. Mr. Hofmann doesn't even give his Bolivians a chance to mug for the camera.
On the other hand, he can be very funny about Germans. The generation gap between the old soldier, obsessed with historical crimes, and the young visitor from a 1960's Germany, who is obsessed with his sex life, is telling and comic. This naive visitor has unwittingly found the perfect gift for a mass murderer in hiding: an electric bread knife made by -- who else? -- the munitions maker Krupp. The old soldier reminisces about the names of mopping-up actions on the Russian front: "Hedgerose," "Chopped Meat," "Sausage Broth." An American reader still gagging on Pentagon euphemisms used during the Persian Gulf war is grateful for this direct black humor and the solid legacy of second-generation guilt that inspired it.
The fight took place here, says Uncle... My brother appeared from behind this mulberry tree... Billig, he thought, would soon appear. When he did appear my brother hit him in the mouth. He came from over there, says Uncle, he wanted to put the handcuffs on him, he was taken totally unawares by the blow... Billig followed my brother with his one eye... Billig had just stabbed him again, in the thigh, I think, but my brother... stood here, says Uncle, and screamed in Spanish: "In a few years, if you're not dead, you'll be sitting in a gutter begging for a few coins, totally blind." ...At that, Billig stabs him again, of course, we stand there looking on... Then my brother hits him again. "Ow," Billig screams, "ow!" And takes out an even longer blade and stabs my brother through his other hand. . . . My people took off their hats and... formed a line for him to pass through. Billig, he says, before stabbing him for the last time, genuflects with the knife. Only twenty-four hours have passed, but they're already saying that my brother looked over at me beseechingly before that stabbing, and that I refused to help him, but that's not true. Not once in his life did my brother look at me beseechingly, that's why I could never have "refused" him anything, says Uncle.» - Suzanne Ruta
«Born in 1931, Gert Hofmann belonged to a generation of postwar German writers who grew up during the Nazi period and, because of their age, were spared direct participation in the war at the fronts or in the concentration camps. Yet as children, Hofmann and his contemporaries were inadvertently witnesses to various horrors, from denunciations, murder, and suicides to ostracism and persecution that affected mostly Jews but also members of their own families. As with Christa Wolf's 1976 novel Kindheitsmuster, a major part of Hofmann's literary work was focused intensely on buried childhood memories of life in the family and in his hometown between the late 1930s and 1945. Many of his novels not only dwell upon dramatic events dating to these years but also reflect on the very process of unearthing and reassessing the bits and pieces of memories. In his work the author reveals the cognitive, psychological, and aesthetic problems associated with the endeavor to retrieve the past.
Hofmann started in the 1960s as an author of radio dramas and as a playwright for television, but his indisputable literary breakthrough came in 1979 with the publication of the novella Die Denunziation (The Denunciation). Die Denunziation marked the beginning of his serious interest in the subject of the Holocaust and the German Nazi past. Hofmann surprised the public with the originality of his selection of historical themes as well as with the rich palette of narrative techniques and strategies. Characteristic of Hofmann's prose are the peculiar restlessness and unreliability of the narrative voice. The narrator switches perspectives, cruises freely between past and present, and often shades into an unidentifiable presence as if to underscore the idea that the "truth" about the past has become practically inaccessible.
Most of Hofmann's works touching upon themes of persecution, racism, and murder during the Nazi period are set in the microworld of a sleepy provincial town in Germany. Often the author uses his own birthplace in Saxony, Limbach, as the background for the historical events. With almost ethnographic accuracy Hofmann describes the life of the family—with its predictable dynamics, power plays, and idiosyncracies—set within a small network of friends, neighbors, and relatives. Yet at the same time, he transforms the family into the stage where private attitudes, petty habits, and routine behavior resound with the big moral dilemmas of the time and can be fatally related to ruptures and tragedies of historic proportions. In Die Denunziation, for example, it is the Hecht family that disintegrates in the most dramatic way after an anonymous betrayer reports the half-Jewish tailor L. Silberstein to the authorities. After Silberstein is rounded up in 1944, his wife commits suicide, and thereupon the mother of the Hecht family drowns herself, the father is sent to the retreating Eastern Front, where he is killed, and the twin brothers, Karl and Wilhelm Hecht, are separated for life at age 14.
In other short novels, such as Unsere Eroberung (1984; Our Conquest) and Veilchenfeld (1986), the narrator's voice assumes the identity and naive directness of children who have inadvertently become witnesses to historical tragedies. Sent on an errand on 8 May 1945, two brothers from Unsere Eroberung run into various adults whom the children suspect of participation in unimaginable horrors. It is again a child, their cousin Edgar, who unearths the nasty truth, namely that a Czech slave laborer has been murdered in the family factory. In the novel Velichenfeld the complex conjunction between the quiet and unremarkable everyday life of the small community of Limbach and the cruel political persecution of its only Jewish member, Professor Veilchenfeld, in the course of 1938 is seen again through the eyes of a child.
The theme of the Nazi past is handled with subtlety and humor in Hofmann's most overtly autobiographical text, Der Kinoerzähler (1990; The Film Explainer"). Once again, the book presents a meticulous study of one community's petty quarrels surrounding the "Aryanization" of a Jewish-owned cinema, and it goes on to reveal the subtle mechanisms leading to collaboration in the horrors of Nazism.
Hofmann's approach to the Holocaust and the Nazi past lacks the self-righteous pathos of other contemporaries who became known as the creators of the so-called Väterliteratur. While these authors have explored the past of their authoritarian parents only to assess the psychological injuries that were sustained, Hofmann is interested in the broader impact of the atrocities of the Holocaust, on Germans and Jews as well. In his works he manages to maintain a masterful balance between realistic autobiographical details and a modernist sense of rupture, incompleteness, and the impossibility of a consistent account of the experience. At the same time, his novels avoid the traps of sentimentality and philo-Semitism and offer no ready condemnations or absolutions.» - Mila Ganeva
Gert Hofmann, Our Conquest, Methuen Publishing, 1991.
A novel seen from the perspective of a German child. Starting at the end of World War II with a family hiding in a cellar from the Allies, it proceeds backwards, through memories, to reveal their town's shameful history. The author won the Alfred Doblin Prize for "The Spectacle at the Tower".
A German town is overrun at the end of World War II by once-conquered and now victorious Czechs--and the children of the lmbach family narrate the consequences. Their father, the owner of a small whip factory, is missing and presumed dead; the mother is beside herself with worry; and the children, sent out with their orphaned friend, ""our Edgar,"" to obtain some bacon-fat from the local slaughterhouse, go off instead on an allegorical journey through destruction. They are chased and almost tortured in the slaughterhouse; a widow gives them her dead husband's suit; they visit the bombed-out church and the nightmarish remains of the theater. And throughout, in chapter-length paragraphs, Hofmann seems to be building a parable of Germany's WW II guilt--with the children representing the German people and ""our Edgar"" (an intentional echo, perhaps, of Syberberg's mythologizing film ""Our Hitler"") representing the inquisition, a Nuremberg-like tribunal. ""Briefly: while our Edgar, who wants to have a good look and share our experience, raises his head a little, we stab last February's scars on our thighs four times, then it's five, then six. Briefly: we're wounding ourselves now. Briefly: it's more than a whim, for we know why we're doing it. Briefly: it's because of father, who has never been punished, whereas Edgar's father and mother are buried, have disappeared."" Exaggeratedly symbolic, in a nowhere fog-zone like that found in today's neo-Expressionist German painting, Hofmann's new novel is murky and uninviting, mannered in its narration--without the balance between the casual and the cryptic that made his The Spectacle at the Tower (1984) modestly intriguing. - Kirkus Reviews
Gert Hofmann, The Parable of the Blind, Trans. by Christopher Middleton. Fromm Intl, 1986.
The idea behind this implacably bleak fable is deeply engrossing, if not wholly original. The inspiration is the elder Breughel's harrowing painting, The Parable of the Blind. Yet the Flemish master is not the central figure; the six blind men of the picture dominate the canvas. They occupy our attention as they move toward their historic destiny on that day in the late 16th century when they served as models for the painter. Who are these men, the novel asks, and what were they like? What did they do, say, feel, think, sufferthose pariahs whose eyes were pecked out by ravens, as they stumbled, fell, screamed and clawed at each other? Why did they cry out to the coarse, taunting peasants: "You're beasts; we're the Lord's elect"? Imagining backward from the great painting to its subjects and themes, the German novelist's "parable" may numb us with its brutal repetition, but it also provides a plausible explanation of what Breughel might have seen as he took up his brushes. - Publishers Weekly
Hofmann (The Spectacle A t The Tower, Our Conquest) has written a spare, surprisingly electric novella whose chief narrator is one of the 16th-century blind subjects from Breughel's masterpiece, The Parable of the Blind. Everything happens in a single day: the blind beggars waking, entering the village where Breughel is to paint them; the curiosity and cruelty of the townspeople; the actual posing. Which involves--recall the painting--falling, tripping headlong into a stream. And screaming--in fright, outrage, utter disadvantage. The blind man who narrates speaks in the first-person plural (""So that's us, being seen and becoming smaller or bigger. Anyway, nobody comes to us in the hollow, also nobody calls to us, but probably people can see us walking with soft uncertain footsteps out of the hollow and vanishing over the horizon. Then people will soon have seen enough and told themselves: O, it's only them!""). Brueghel himself is the only other narrative participant, awash in doubts and passions (""And when he wants to paint the scream, he also wants to paint the terror, what can be seen of the terror""). There's a curious Barthelme-like exteriority to the blind man's narration, while to Breughel nothing could be more interior than these poor wretches, bringing up as they do the questions of art's manipulation, exploitation. The contrast is done very intelligently--as is the whole theological parable the painting represents, after all: Are we all blind? Is God the painter? Lean, effective, and subtle work, the best by Hofmann to be translated here so far. - Kirkus Reviews
On the surface this deceptively simple narrative is the story of how the blind beggars came to be painted by Pieter Brueghel. His painting was also called "The Parable of the Blind." Cast in prose, the parable evokes an even more distressing picture of the fate of man. The words more variously and pathetically image the condition of humanity, which lives "in darkness, so to speak, forever." Hofmann, a German writer, manifests an essential skepticism of the "ways of the world" and how people interact and communicate with one another. In this most understated of satires he has created an eloquent allegory of the modern age, a spare but revealing picture of alienation, confusion, and insensitivity. Recommended for all literature collections. - Carol J. Lichtenberg
THE prizewinning West German playwright and essayist Gert Hofmann began publishing fiction in 1979, at the age of 47. He is so far known in this country by two novels, ''The Spectacle at the Tower'' (for which he won the coveted Alfred Doblin Prize in 1982) and ''Our Conquest'' (1984). They are long, grotesque studies in man's inhumanity to man, the former set in a desolate corner of modern Sicily, the latter in Germany on the spring day in 1945 that saw the end of the Nazi Reich.
In these, as in the rest of his fiction, Mr. Hofmann's characters - particularly his narrators - seem ready to sink beneath the weight of the gruesome, often ambiguous information they are asked to convey. The action suggests frenzy even when the motive for such a state is not evident; the dialogues are a mass of sentences broken and then fleshed out by environmental noise, like the soundtrack of a Robert Altman film in transcription. Mr. Hofmann's narration becomes an explication of the unsayable as he fills the gaps left by these failed attempts at communication.
So it is a pleasure to pick up his most recent work, ''The Parable of the Blind,'' and find it not only short, like the best of Mr. Hofmann's fiction to date, but written in deliberately short and yet complete sentences that invite the reader's confidence. The subject is Bruegel's painting of the same name: in the Pulitzer Prize-winning ''Pictures From Brueghel and Other Poems'' (1962), William Carlos Williams called the canvas ''this horrible but superb painting,'' a laconic gloss on an equally laconic pictorial reading of Matthew 15:14 -''Let [ the Pharisees ] alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.''
For Bruegel there were six blind men, winding their way across a sere landscape dominated by a village church and a stream into which they topple one after another. Mr. Hofmann gives four of them names: Ripolus, the leader, who can see just well enough to tell light from darkness; Slit Man, blinded for stealing; Bellejambe, once a soldier; and Malente, who at odd moments begins to sing the praises of the Lord who allowed him to go blind. In the middle are two unnamed figures, the narrative ''we'' of the story, who are at once themselves and all six blind men and - in the universalizing style of parables - mankind at large.
For if Bruegel's blind men are alone in the landscape, Gert Hofmann's canvas is crowded with people. His six figures are not on an abstract journey; they are roused from sleep on the day they are to be painted by the artist, who wants, as we learn late in the book, to have one last try at putting ''everything he had to say about the world'' into a single picture. The six men are fetched from the barn where they've been dreaming by a man called ''the knocker,'' led to breakfast by ''the child,'' cleaned up after their meal by ''the woman'' Lise, and watched off and on throughout the day by a host of others, named and unnamed, whom the blind men cannot see but of whom they are always uncomfortably aware.
The human community is to them a fading reality, a world that demands too much of them in their handicapped state. They want to let go, as the narrator indicates in his discussion of Ripolus's leadership skills: ''Many of the words he once knew, the words from before, as he calls them, he's already forgotten, at least half of them, no wonder his sentences (and ours) are getting shorter and shorter. Compared with the sentences from before they aren't even sentences. But none of this disturbs him, because he believes that when all the words have been forgotten, then there'll be nothing above, beneath, before, or inside us. And if he does (or we do) still remember an old sort of word, or if somebody speaks such a word, he doesn't know if the thing is still behind the word and how he's to think about it. A larch tree clearing? Good, but how? A twilight? Fine, but what's that?''
In the interim, though, Bruegel wants to paint them. Intent on realism, he has them practice walking to the creek that runs by his house and, as they begin crossing the bridge, has them fall, screaming, into the water, still icy from the winter. Eager to catch the desolation he sees as intrinsic to the human condition, he has them go through the motions over and over until he gets the pink of their distended mouths just right. THE paradox is evident, and conveys the paradox of Gert Hofmann's own work. If he chooses to talk, in ''The Parable of the Blind,'' about a failure of perception and the evanescence of language, he does so with an acuity worthy of the Flemish master himself. There is an earthiness to this book, an immediacy of sensory impression that is enhanced by the continuing, very cerebral meditation on the contradictions of art, and that comes through in the smallest details: the squealing of a stuck pig, the saltpeter sweating from the walls of Bruegel's house in the spring floods. All are rendered in a fluent translation by Christopher Middleton, who did the English versions of the author's two earlier American releases.
Mr. Hofmann displays the linguistic concision of a poet here, and develops a dramatic tension lacking in his other novels. But if this short book marks a turning point in his fiction - the blind men speak at one point of standing where ''one region of the world ends and goes over into another'' - it is not merely a stylistic change. The ''we'' so freely used by the narrator includes the reader, after all, as well as the artist, a kind of deity who presides both in and beyond the work. Within this community (at its worst called complicity), the grotesque turns spiritual, revealing the oxymoronic potential of the phrase ''blind faith." - Leigh Hafrey
The more I think about Gert Hofmann’s Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl (my review here), the more sure I am that it will be on my year-end best list. I loved that charming and yet dark book. Consequently, I’ve been slowly getting my hands on more of Hofmann’s work, which has been translated sporadically by various publishers over the past thirty years. In this quest, I was excited to see that one of Hofmann’s books was inspired by a Pieter Bruegel the Elder painting The Blind Leading the Blind. Thanks in part to Michael Frayn’s fantastic Headlong, which was on my year-end best list last year (my review of Headlong here; my 2010 year-end best list here), I couldn’t resist reading Hofmann’s The Parable of the Blind (Der Blindensturz, 1985; tr. from the German by Christopher Middleton, 1986).First things first:
On the day when we’re to be painted — yet another new day! — a knocking on the barn door drags us out of our sleep.
Just reading that simple opening sentence about “the knocker” reminded me of one of the things I liked best about Hofmann’s style in Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl: there’s an unabashed use of exclamation marks that lightens to the point of exuberance the tone of what might otherwise be very depressing. It’s an emotional mix of humor and seriousness that makes that book transcendent, and this first sentence in this book had me hoping for much the same thing here. I wasn’t disappointed.
The speaker — that “we” — is a group of blind men who wander from town to town. Hofmann establishes their blind perspective right away:
Around us thick soft flakes of snow, clearly remembered, are falling into the gentle folds of the countryside and burying everything: the plow, the weeds, the trees, as well as all the other things we gave up long ago, but which probably still exist.
The word “probably” gets repeated over and over, much as “And then?” did in Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl. It’s a constant reminder that even while we are reading about what’s happening in the physical world, the person speaking is seeing complete blackness. Neither we readers nor the speakers are actually seeing what’s going on, but somehow it is being conveyed. Or, at least, something is being conveyed.
In fact, these blind men aren’t sure of much of anything (though I’m not saying this is the conventional “unreliable narrator”; it’s much more about the transfer through words or images than about the reliability of the speaker). For example, these men aren’t even sure of each other. They are led by one who, probably, can see well enough to distinguish light from dark. We have reason to suspect otherwise. One among them was blinded unnaturally, probably for punishment, and has taken the place of one who died — they figure they will probably push him in a ditch and leave him some day.
One of the biggest questions they have is why the painter would be interested in painting them. No one really knows. Even the beloved knocker (the kind-ish man who woke them up and eventually took them to a rather humiliating breakfast) cannot fathom why anyone would want to paint them. Others are downright mean and dismissive:
And then the man who isn’t the knocker suddenly flies into a rage and jumps around on the ground in front of us. Perhaps because we mistook him for the knocker, perhaps for another reason. And he shouts that it’s wrong to talk with us and to be concerned with us and to let us run around because we bring disorder into everything, thoughts, people, the air. And that we trample down everything that’s in our way. Look at them, he exclaims, and probably he’s pointing at us.
At once we think we might be standing among flowers and we step back, but aren’t certain if we’re stepping out of one lot of flowers into another.
The story progresses as these blind men try to find the painter’s house. As you might imagine, it’s not a pleasant journey. Of course, Hofmann’s prose style leavens the seriousness of what’s going on as these men are subjected to one humiliation after another. That’s not to say the tone is always comic: “How often we tell ourselves: Let’s just go to sleep! — and forget that we’re already asleep.” And the best is when the comic and the dark come together in fine long passages, like this one when they finally get to the painter’s:
The painter, who probably noticed us at once and is probably striding up and down by the probably wide-open window of his house, says — we can’t hear it all — that he’s always been surrounded by whole spaces full of pictures, afflicted by them. These spaces, he says, come to me, they come into my house. These are the spaces in which he lives, though of course there are also the other ones. How many times he’s sat, especially on the long winter evenings, in the middle of those spaces and the pictures have shown him the world. More and more often now, since the slaughter at Liège, the pictures are of people dying and dead. The pictures in these spaces, now without a sky, with a high horizon, are all filled, to the limit of the frame, gold, my good friend, with images of people and things dying, perishing, or dead already. All in extremis, he says. Like these here, he adds and probably points out through the window, thus probably at us.
Asking the blind men to practice stumbling and then falling into a ditch (over and over again) so he can get the interior of their mouths correct, even the master, who offers them this great honor, is cruel and then dismissive.
This is a strange book filled with a bleak outlook on these outwardly jovial men who live in total darkness and alienation. Certainly, the terror is expressed as well here as it is in the visual art by Bruegel himself.
That said, I liked it much less than Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl, which in general I found to be both more vivacious and more bleak. This is certainly a good read, though, and I recommend it.
The novel covers the day when these six men are to be painted by Pieter Breughel, “the Painter”, who wants them to follow each other and fall down into a ditch, the image familiar to us as “The Parable of the Blind”, a rural recreation of Matthew XV, 14: “If the Blind lead the Blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”
In the painting, the blind men are about to fall. The painting is tense, as the eye follows the chain of men towards the ditch. What we see is about to collapse. Hofmann’s novel is also tense; not because the six narrators may collapse but because the novel as viable form may do so. It doesn’t.
The novel’s frame is this: The six men speak a strangely unified monologue, wandering around the village, on the green, in the woods, eating lunch. Each man has a story about how he came to be blind. As readers, we are never given more information than the six possess nor any hints with which to see out of the monologue; there are times when the six may be the subject of practical jokes – being told they are in a secluded toilet when they may be on the village green – but we don’t laugh, because we don’t know if it’s funny. We don’t see from the outside. We read thoughts and speech. We are blind because we’re stuck like narrative threads in the novel’s mass, just as the blind men seem trapped in the telling of their own story.
This is why worries over the inaccurate presentation of blindness are beside the point. Do blind people feel themselves all over to work out who they are, first thing in the morning, as these do? No. But this is ‘The Parable of the Blind’, and the parables are multiple. Imagine a page with six tiny figures stumbling around in it; they can’t see the perimeter of the page, and they can’t see out into the world. The page is a room, or a village, and we, the reader, are there too, wondering what room, what enclosed world we are in. The six men remember the past. They wonder where they are. They have banal conversations with strangers about food and the weather and which is the best way to go. They argue with each other and nearly fight. Hofmann’s prose is so concentrated and unrelenting that claustrophobia turns to terrible awareness. There is no need to explicate. No need for laboured, “author’s message” moments, because we begin to read everything into the parable; the leaner in description or the more a narrative moves in circles or repetition the greater the force accumulated. How does a book like this pierce through to us, when there was no vivid description of something we recognised, no witty or psychologically fascinating dialogue, no grand sweep of history, no denouement?
One answer is that those very elements begin to seem ornamental to literature’s work, part of which (let’s be reductive!) is to wonder how communication in language might be possible and, if it isn’t, to fail instructively. How can six blind men stumbling around, speak to us? Do they speak for anyone else as well? They are six men in a painting, here made to fall into the ditch over and over for the Painter to make his sketches.
Sight is most often the sense connected to knowledge, as in, “I see it”, “I can’t see round it”, “in this light”, and also the various distinctions between the visible and invisible. Sight is also linked to reason; if we can see it properly, we can be rational about it. These traditions find their dissection in the contemporary philosophies of “the gaze”. In ‘The Parable of the Blind’, it is hearing that relates the realistic details of interaction, that is, speech. Without sight, the most pushy of senses, one of the things the novel does is to bring sound and touch back to a narrative, to embody a world not predicated on the eyes, as Aristotle seemed to think was necessary when he wrote ‘On Sense and Sensible Objects’, “of those who have been deprived of one sense or the other from birth, the blind are more intelligent than the deaf and the dumb.” Hofmann’s novel is a joke on metaphor – which, classically, bridges the inward mental activity to the world of appearances, left in this novel as a swing bridge hanging over the water – making the parable, ‘in this light’, a parable of the parables.
Standing before a painting, we may well ask a work to speak to us, and a number of novelists have taken up the extra-critical task of elaborating this speech or else making up a story – one thinks of a pearl earring – following the irritating trope that we might “walk inside” a painting. Hofmann has taken this thought and actually pushed our faces so far into the oil and brush-strokes that we cannot see back out, and we cannot see within. The prose, inhabiting a world of sound and intuited objects, is spare and clear, like a radio transmission which has been tuned in after an interfering hiss.
Christopher Middleton’s translation is excellent – by no means a given in translations from the German, see Michael Henry Heim’s ruination of Günter Grass’s My Century – in that he replicates this sparse quality in English without falling into a Beckettese, which it might have been easy to do. Middleton is a poet – recommended is his new and selected poems, The Word Pavilion as well as the extraordinary prose pieces in such volumes as Crypto-Topographia – and translator of Canetti (his letters), Robert Walser and Nietzsche. His is not a workman-like translation. Hofmann’s forward-drive is here, the unaccountable tension, the use of sentence on sentence like brick and timber.
The narrator (unusual for being six people and one person simultaneously) often says “probably”, probably we are here, probably there is a man with a stick, probably we are being painted by the Painter. Surface is not given to us for our delight, as in a Quiet novel (Edgar Allen Poe’s term for the mainstream, “official literary culture” of his time, the work he hated and wanted to tear down), but is constantly in doubt – what would otherwise be a world is here only conjecture: “What’s going on? we call. And it’s hard to find the way back. We’re in a dream. Lying in a fresh furrow, in a boundless field, half on the surface, half below ground, clouds probably overhead.” - Edmund Hardy
Gert Hofmann, Balzacs Horse and Other Stories, Trans. by Christopher Middleton, Fromm Intl, 1988.
The longest of these stories read like excerpts from works in progress; the shortest are not much more than sketches. Yet Hofmann, one of Germany's most respected postwar authors, addresses philosophical questions often ignored by his American contemporaries. What is reality? What is the purpose of art? Of life? The title story consists of a running dialogue between Balzac and Brissot, the inspector of the cloacas (sewers) of Paris, on the nature of the theater. Balzac's detailed lament about the arduous process of getting a play produced is topped in a macabre twist by Brissot as he describes a spectacular, real-life drama that occurs in the Parisian sewers. In "Casanova and the Extra," an aging philanderer meets up with a woman who is (probably) his mother, and the thin link between reality and fantasy is crossed. In "Arno," a failed writer lives vicariously through his neighbor, a decrepit, once-famous poet. This collection of seven stories should be viewed as a companion piece to such distinguished novels as Our Conquest and The Parable of the Blind. - Publishers Weekly
Some of these stories by German writer Hofmann (Our Conquest, The Parable of the Blind) are stylized and invariably surreal historical re-creations: Casanova in decline; Tolstoy's son joining the circus (his act an impersonation of his father); Balzac secretly attending the opening night of his first play in the company of the Parisian sewer inspector. And others are elliptical, emblematic pieces: a mad young man spying on the poet living across the street; a villager forced to institutionalize his mad daughter as the Nazis are beginning to devour Europe. In any event, the allegorical is never far from Hofmann's concerns: maybe the best story here is ""The Cramp,"" about a German industrialist aboard a Vancouver ferry with his wife and associates, two of whom he's preparing to fire--a story whose meaning is elusive but shimmering in a halo around every word. Hofmann is artful enough to promote real questioning in a reader as to the significance of his oblique fictions. But at the same time nearly every piece wears out its welcome by being far too long--and the developed suspense droops before it can be satisfied (or satisfyingly stymied). Intriguing, concentrated work, but with a tendency to overextend. - Kirkus Reviews
Gert Hofmann, The Spectacle at the Tower, Fromm Intl, 1984.
An unhappily married German couple is on vacation in Sicily--"a meticulously detailed journey through a hell the reader may often be anxious to leave." In a dusty, desolate town, the couple's car breaks down, and they witness the spectacle of a beautiful boy's suicide from a tower. PW likened this tale to the sun at midday: "harsh, pitiless, burning and relentless." - Publishers Weekly
With echoes of Kafka, Beckett, and others, Hofmann takes his middle-class German narrator through a surreal--yet understated and ironic--nightmare-episode: encounters with Death, Eros, and Violence in the world's most barren tourist-trap. Vacationing in Sicily, the narrator and wife Maria are at a bitter marital dead-end: he's furious with her for having gotten pregnant again (there's a small daughter back home); she's furious with him--after learning that he has an illegitimate son. Appropriately, then, they wind up in the dead village of Dikaiarcheia--""small, ruined, dustblanketed. . . poverty-stricken, horrible, and repulsive."" They're the only guests at a vile inn. The only signs of life are young boys slaughtering goats. But the couple is suddenly approached by the village ""supervisor""--who insists on leading the hot, tired Germans on a tour of Dikaiarcheia's historic sites, culminating (he promises) in a ""spectacle at the tower."" The first attraction? A one-room house containing--as viewed through the window--old, dead women ""on an iron rod built into the wall. . . like rare birds in a darkened cage."" Next comes the deserted Foundlings' Home, where ""superfluous children"" (an echo of Maria's controversial pregnancy) were systematically mutilated. Then the marketplace, site of bygone political tortures. (""Well, I say. . . for our taste, he's going too far, much too far. Also that his account is far too precise, with too many details. Do we, as tourists, have no right to a touristic relationship with the market of D.? Can't we, as visitors, be allowed here, as elsewhere, to stop at the surface of things?"") And finally comes the disappointing water tower--a 19th-century eyesore--followed by a very grim spectacle indeed: the German couple, along with a magically-appearing crowd of fellow tourists, is treated to a grisly hunger march (""a demonstration against death'). . . and the death-leap of a handsome goat-boy from that phallic-symbol/tower. Hofmann's network of themes here often threatens to become a murky muddle: existential angst; social conscience (rich tourists vs. poor, desperate-to-please Sicilians); and sexual tension (the narrator's bygone, reawakening homosexuality). But, through most of this short, resonant novel, the dreamlike bizarreness and ominous atmosphere are firmly maintained--thanks to elegantly rhythmic narration (masterfully translated) and a shrewd balance between horror and comedy. - Kirkus Reviews
AMONG German writers of the 1980s Gert Hofmann had the unusual distinction of being at once acclaimed and invisible.
Reviewers attempting a summary verdict often resorted to the untranslatable 'Geheimtip', a word that suggests distinctive merit known only to a select few. Not that Hofmann's achievements were inaccessible or esoteric - he was unusually productive; he won high critical praise and many prizes, but he followed no trends and set none. In a country prone to make public figures of its writers he never became a public figure. This withdrawn, undemonstrative man was indeed wary in public, unwilling to make speeches and loath to talk about the writing to which he was so singlemindedly committed.
Why Hofmann acquired no readily identifiable place on the German literary scene is in part explained by the fact that there had been none of the steady lifelong development that attracts labels.
Born in 1932 near Chemnitz, Hofmann took a doctorate in 1957 on Thomas Mann and Henry James, lectured in universities from Berkeley to Edinburgh and looked set on a university career. But he lacked, as he put it, the necessary placidity and pedantry, preferring a life that he saw as rootless and experimental.
Experiment was not Hofmann's aim as a writer, even though his first choice - the radio-play - had become at least in Germany an obvious field for experiment. From the early 1960s Hofmann began to establish a considerable reputation as a prolific writer of radio-plays which - typically - stand aside from fashions and rely not at all on electronic wizardry. By 1980 he had written over 30 radio-plays, winning prizes in the United States, in Prague and - in that year - the Prix Italia. But in 1980 Hofmann, seeking, he claimed, a less transient link with his audience, published his first novel. And it is on his novels that his reputation rests.
In one respect that first novel, Die Fistelstimme, sets a pattern: when a fraught German Lektor (univeristy lecturer) recalls 24 disabling, threatening hours in Ljubljana, autobiography and fiction seem to overlap - Hofmann was Lektor to that same town. But the overlaps are more deceptive than real, the narrator is distanced, more inclined to question experience than simply to report it.
For his second novel, The Spectacle at the Tower (the first to be translated into English), Hofmann won the 1982 Doblin Prize. The location is exotic - a parched Sicilian landscape - and the atmosphere nightmarishly vivid to a couple at the Strindbergian end of their marital tether, journeying through a death-ridden landscape to a strangely unreal tower. The colours are hectic, the symbolism extreme - Hofmann has moved a long way from his disoriented Lektor. But neither this highly charged novel, nor its more reflective predecessor, prepared the ground for the very different novels that followed.
With his third novel, first published in 1984 and translated as Our Conquest, Hofmann's theme changed. The time is 1945, the perspective that of a child. Again it is tempting to invoke biographical fact - Hofmann was a child in 1945 - but this is to misrepresent the variety and the complexity of this and subsequent novels. In Our Conquest two, perhaps three, children traverse their home town on the day of surrender. The children, unaware yet knowing keep the horrors at a distance and yet explore a haunted landscape.
Hofmann's children are strangely anonymous, half-seen presences, but Hofmann seems to have found a kind of security in the child's perspective on grim events. It is children who experience at a distance the hounding of a Jew (Veichenfeld, 1986), childhood haunts an adult 30 years on in Our Forgetfulness (1987) - a title that itself speaks volumes. And it is a child's view of his vivid, comic, film-mad grandfather (Der Kinoerzahler, 1990) that enriches one of Hofmann's most memorable portrayals, a man whose calling in a small-town cinema has left him addicted to the silent screen at a time when there is no silence either on screen or off it.
The past that haunted Germany had plainly come to haunt, indeed to obsess Hofmann. As a character in one of his radio-plays puts it: 'Obviously since the end of the war I've never been able to clear the bomb-damage out of my head.' No German writer has in recent years found so many angles on that damage. - PHILIP BRADY