Frank Witzel - This eminent novel – comparable to David Forster Wallace’s wide-ranging novels– vividly depicts the foundation of a youth gang through the eyes of a 13-year-old together with his friends Bernd and Claudia


Frank Witzel, Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969, Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2015.
sample translation


Winner of the German Book Prize 2015!

The Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) produced the most traumatic and shocking period in the history of post-war Germany. This eminent novel – comparable to David Forster Wallace’s wide-ranging novelsvividly depicts the foundation of a youth gang through the eyes of a 13-year-old together with his friends Bernd and Claudia. Without knowing what they are about to unleash, they name themselves the 'Red Army Faction'. Decades later the narrator‘s girlfriend takes him to an asylum because he is losing touch with reality. Memories of postwar Germany, a foreboding of the so-called German Autumn and meditations of the present day carry the narrator far and far away from his surroundings. He is not only forced to face his own absurdities but is also interrogated by a police officer who can’t quite believe that the Red Army Faction was nothing but an invention. Frank Witzel creates an almost forgotten world through this large-scale fantasy, which is not only a reconstruction of West Germany but also a historical hall of mirrors inside the mind of an adolescent. Full of pace, humour and musings on philosophy and music, this book creatively renders a part of Germany that came to an end in 1990 – just like the GDR. - www.new-books-in-german.com/english/1959/439/132/129002/design1.html


The 'Red Army Faction' of the title, Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969 ('The invention of the Red Army Faction by a manic-depressive teenager in the summer of 1969'), naturally leads to the association with the West German terrorist group of that name, also popularly known as the Baader-Meinhof group. The terrorist group had its origins in the 1968 student protests; an attack on two department stores led to the arrest of, among others, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, though it was only the 1970 jailbreak of Baader, in which Ulrike Meinhof was then also involved, that really launched the era-defining group. In the first years attacks were largely directed at police and (US-)military targets; the core of the founding members were imprisoned by 1972 (and committed suicide while in prison in 1976 and 1977) while a second generation was responsible for the more spectacular kidnappings and assassinations, including those of the 'Deutscher Herbst' ('German autumn') of 1977.
       As the date in the title of Witzel's novel suggests, the association he focuses on is on the early version of the RAF (and so, for example, Meinhof is a much lesser presence in his story than Baader); nevertheless, the highly charged name of the group brings with it very strong associations -- and specifically ones extending through the mid-1970s.
       The protagonist of the novel is Witzel's age, in his early teens in the late 1960s. The opening chapter already makes clear that the boy -- and his close friends Claudia and Bernd -- have nothing to do with the actual (later) RAF -- yet brilliantly evokes a childish parallel-world in which they are part, in typical rebellious-teenage-phase style, of a vague anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment grouping that also styles itself as a 'Red Army Faction' (even before and without knowing what the actual group is).
       Witzel's complex ninety-eight chapter arrangement -- polyphonically symphonic -- is not chronological, but the focus is on the protagonist's (early, defining) teenage years, when he is thirteen or so, and the story repeatedly circles back to that. Many chapters are set later in time, up to the near-present-day, and much is informed by what we now know -- but the character at the center is the young boy whose awareness of the real RAF, and what they do, is typically childishly limited. (Disturbing overlaps are, however, revealed, too, suggesting just how close the real and imaginary RAFs are, as, for example, second-generation terrorist Birgit Hogefeld -- a year younger than Witzel and his protagonist, and also raised in Wiesbaden -- apparently took organ-lessons at the same church where (and when) the protagonist was an altar boy.)
       The freighted names 'Andreas Baader' and 'Gudrun Ensslin' are first mentioned early on -- but not as RAF terrorists: they are the names the young boy has given to the plastic figurines that he admits he's too old to play with, Baader a knight, Ensslin an Indian squaw; it's typical of the way the actual figures and events are perceived and realized in the childish mind. Similarly, the defining opening scene, which has the boy and his two friends on the run transposes adult reality onto a very different childish perception -- right down to the gun in the car glove compartment which, in the version the protagonist experienced, has no ammunition: he forgot to fill up the water-pistol with water .....
       The novel moves full circle, as the closing chapter again looks back (nostalgically) to this opening scene, but in fact it circles repeatedly around it -- and spirals far beyond too. At its heart is a recreation and revisiting of the formative years of the protagonist, with its defining events, experiences, and relationships. Political culture is secondary -- the boy is only dimly aware of larger events; he does not follow 'the news' closely -- and yet this is a novel steeped completely in its times. So also, for example, there is a chapter in drama-form that takes as its (similarly long) title a variation on Peter Weiss' Marat/Sade-play and adapts the basic concept for his purposes, as well as repeated exercises in detailed exegesis -- of the Beatles' Rubber Soul album.
       The protagonist narrates much of the story, but Witzel heaps much more in as well. One chapter even has the 'adult teenager' addressing a university clinic audience about (so at least the chapter-title -- as happens often throughout, there's a lot more to the actual/imagined lecture) there not being any chronology to life. There are first-person account of others' lives -- adolescent contemporaries of the protagonist, for example -- as well as brief hagiographies of actual RAF-members (very freely reimagining their lives); one chapter proposes (in its title, blatantly echoing the novel-title): 'Die Erfindung des Nationalsozialismus durch einen schizophrenen-paranoiden Halbstarken im Herbst 1951' ('The invention of National Socialism by a paranoid-schizophrenic punk in the autumn of 1951'). In one late effort to establish order, there's an alphabetical arrangement.
       One chapter consists of a question-and-answer article (ostensibly from the magazine 'Patapsychophysique) and while that one involves a psychoanalyst named Bernhard Lückricht many of the chapters are in the form of dialogue involving the protagonist, many of them with a conversation-partner who is, in some form, a therapist, some in the form, one way or another, of a confession (as also the religious concept of guilt is a strong one throughout). The protagonist -- already identified as manic-depressive in the title -- has mental health issues to deal with and both as teenager and then in his later 'adult teenager' state he goes over his experiences and thoughts in conversation with others. He often does so evasively/defensively and circumspectly -- and is called out on it on occasion:
Ständig schweifen Sie ab, kommen vom Hölzchen aufs Stöckchen, aber die entscheidenen Sachen bleiben immer ungesagt.
[You're constantly digressing [...], but the crucial things always remain unsaid.]

       There is an element/danger of sinking in, as one character warns, the protagonist's "Errinerungssumpf" ('memory-bog'), but the layering of so much, and the examination of experiences from so many angles is ultimately very revealing. Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion [...] is very much a character-study -- and very unlike most -- as well as slice-of-the-times novel (again, unlike most).
       Religion plays a role here too, as we're reminded that he was an altar boy -- and, indeed, at one point there's the suggestion:
     Als Kind hat man eigentlich nur in der Kirche eine Chance. Nicht als Revolutionär. Noch nicht mal in einer Beatgruppe.
[As a child one really only has a chance in church. Not as a revolutionary. Not even in a pop band.]

       The Nazi legacy is also one that weighs heavily on the times and even on the young protagonist:
Aber von einem wirklichen Neuanfang war nie die Rede, und das ist das wirkliche Erbe der Nazis, dass das, was sie verbrochen haben, einfach nicht aufhört, über ihr eigenes Ableben hinauszuwirken.
[But there was never any talk of a real new beginning, and that is the real legacy of the Nazis -- that the repercussions of everything they perpetrated simply won't stop even after their demise.]

       There are some fundamental psychological issue the protagonist deals with -- extending to, for example, the removal of his tonsils: shown the testicle-like removed bits he sees them as yet another manifestation of his being rendered speechless and neutered. While questions of communication are at the fore, sex obviously also plays some role for the adolescent (and then grown-up), and unresolved issues with his friends -- Claudia, who he pines for, and Bernd, who he sees also as a rival -- also extend through the entire novel.
       Late on the protagonist admits/suggests:      Ich habe mit dem ganzen Gerede über die Rote Armee Fraktion 1913 nur abgelenkt, weil ich nicht wollte, dass rauskommt, was ich wirklich getan habe
[All my blabbering about the Red Army Faction 1913 was just to distract, because I didn't want what I really did revealed ]

       Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion [...] is a novel full of bluffs; even its sheer mass is a bluff -- and yet also necessary: if the resulting very big picture isn't of the clarity that we might expect to get from realist fiction (nor from your more usual mosaic-novel), it is nevertheless substantial and rich. Witzel has (re)created a time and a world, and from the pop references to the the actions and perceptions of a young teenager (and then the attempts by his older self to analyze and work through these, often using the techniques of literary and psychological theory to do so) he has managed very well.
       A decidedly unusual reading experience, but, for all its occasional frustrations, a rewarding one. - M.A.Orthofer

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