Klaus Hoffer - a German cult favorite and a masterwork of culture shock fiction that revels in exploring oppressive cultural baggage and assimilation. Readers will encounter here an amalgam drawing from Kafka, Borges, and Beckett, among others
Klaus Hoffer, Among the Bieresch, Trans. by Isabel Fargo Cole, Seagull Books, 2016.
Young Hans arrives with one suitcase in a squalid village on the eastern edge of empire—a surreal postwar Austria. His uncle has died, and according to the tradition required by his people—the Bieresch—Hans must assume his uncle’s place for one year. In a series of interactions with the village’s tragicomic characters and their contradictory stories and scriptures, the reluctant Hans must face a world both familiar and alien.
Among the Bieresch is Hans’s story—one of bizarre customs, tangled relationships, and the struggle between two mystical sects. The novel, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, is a German cult favorite and a masterwork of culture shock fiction that revels in exploring oppressive cultural baggage and assimilation. Readers will encounter here an amalgam drawing from Kafka, Borges, and Beckett, among others, combining to make Klaus Hoffer’s novel a world utterly its own.
On the surface, the premise of Among the Bieresch is simple – familiar, even: an outsider finds himself lost in a world inhabited by eccentric, tragicomic characters, and governed by a set of unconventional, even bizarre traditions and customs. The deeper he ventures into this strange space, the more disorientated the outsider becomes, and, in his effort to penetrate a society that runs by its own mysterious internal logic, he finds himself on a journey of self-discovery. But as the young narrator endeavours to negotiate the labyrinthine cultural minefield that lies before him, the reader is similarly invited to navigate a terrain of richly complex intertextual references that, upon exploration, open up deeper layers of meaning and provide the foundation for an expansive commentary on socio-economic disenfranchisement.
Originally published in Germany in two parts, in 1979 and 1983, the recent release of Among the Bieresch from Kolkata-based Seagull Books, in a spirited translation by Isabel Fargo Cole, offers an English language readership a long overdue introduction to this celebrated work by Austrian writer Klaus Hoffer. Born in 1942 in the city of Graz, where he still resides, Hoffer has published short stories, essays, studies of Kafka’s work and translations of a number of authors including Joseph Conrad, Raymond Carver, Kurt Vonnegut, Nadine Gordimer and Lydia Davis. His sole novel, long recognised as a German cult favourite, is an inventive postmodern masterpiece that draws from a vast selection of literary sources to give voice to an unforgettable community of characters.
Before he jumps from the train outside the derelict rural station, the protagonist, Hans, is aware that he is about to enter an impoverished, barbaric world, one that he belongs to, in his mind, only by accident of birth. He has been summoned to Zick, his father’s hometown, deep in an isolated corner of an alternate, or rather altered, post-war Austria. According to Biereschek custom, Hans will be required to spend the next year here, taking on the clothing and job of his late uncle. He also must assume responsibility for his uncle’s household which will, for the duration of his installation, be considered ownerless property, open to anyone who wishes to help themselves to the meagre possessions therein. Neither eager nor reluctant, he demonstrates a resigned curiosity, even though he is far from clear on the exact details of what will ensue or how he, a young man from the city, will manage to fulfil the unusual role that the recent death of his uncle has demanded.
At the station Hans’ aunt and the six “godfathers” – the heads of the other households involved in the pending process of ritualised usurpation – are waiting to greet him. A small crowd of followers has also gathered for a chance to size up the newcomer. The locals are a freakish lot: albinos, hunchbacks and folk missing ears or arms. As soon as he is on his way into the village, it becomes apparent to Hans that he has slipped into a community in which he will be watched, judged and dismissed as easily as not. Zick is not an entirely alien space, he has visited his father’s people once before as a child, but now he is back as a man with the expectation that he will at least make an effort to fit in. However, initially, he is not afforded much hope. His aunt advises him:
They don’t expect much: a little sensitivity, common sense, esprit de corps. Join in, and you’ll do well, as we say. Life must go on, we hate all novelty, each novelty brings more of the same. We don’t need change, we have no time for it. It takes your whole life to grasp the least little thing. This may seem strange to you—you’re from the city!
His initiation to Bieresch culture begins as soon as he reaches his uncle’s home. In attendance are the godfathers, their families, and the other townsfolk that greeted him at the station. As the festivities marking his installation proceed, Hans unwittingly finds himself at the receiving end of the first of a series of “lengthy conversations” designed with some arcane community coordination, to educate him in the baffling and contradictory beliefs that divide and define his backward country relations. One such encounter is with Zerdahel, an intoxicated old Jewish man, who is eager to offer Hans his first introduction to the traditions and beliefs of the Bieresch, filtered through the lens of the Histrionic theology to which he subscribes. Astute readers may recognise Kafka, Borges, Vonnegut, and others filtering through as a rich vein of literary, sociological and philosophical currents are tapped and worked in to the very fabric of Biereschek mythology.
The narrative of Among the Bieresch is driven by a relentless succession of engagements with increasingly eccentric characters – meetings that even Hans senses are being staged for his benefit. However, he is never certain if the speaker is intending to win his trust or set him up to fail. Each of these encounters proceeds with lessons, stories, warnings and accusations; but ideological conflicts, personal grudges, doubts and anxieties continually rise to the surface. The more he tries to understand, to make sense of the impenetrable philosophies, and sort out loyalties, the more entangled and contradictory the relationships between the members of this strange community seem. The Bieresch themselves recognise the convoluted quality of their reasoning and acknowledge their persistent need to question everything. In their poverty and isolation they have fallen into a cultural system that emphasises the endless repetitiveness of existence – how else to rationalise the hopeless disenfranchisement they have known?
Among the Bieresch draws its ethnological inspiration from the plight of an actual social minority of impoverished workers who lived, up until the mid 20th century, in self-contained, closed communities known as pusztas on feudal manors in a region of Eastern Austria once known as German West Hungary. Their plight provides a fertile backdrop for the exploration of broader themes of cultural appropriation and political disenfranchisement. In Hoffer’s fanciful realisation, they are a people who have come to define themselves by their poverty: they own nothing, steal openly and have created an eccentric social system to make sense of their fate. As such, this dispossessed people become the ideal vessels for a rich and playful exploration of intertextuality in literature.
The myths, proverbs, sayings and traditions that inform Hoffer’s Biereschek culture draws language, inspiration and content from a vast array of sources. Within a novel as self-contained as the society it depicts, these phrases, ideas and themes are worked seamlessly into the text. They become part of the community’s cultural and proverbial reference points; referred to, quoted, defended and debated by the characters as suits their purpose. Even when an entire story, Kafka’s short tale ‘The Top’, is introduced almost verbatim, it is offered as an apocryphal legend with debatable origins reaching back to the Middle Ages. As the story proceeds, the edges of this legend are frayed, its moral message reframed in the arguments and musings of the characters Hans meets.
The invitation of widely varied voices into the chorus of words and songs that the Bieresch rely upon to tell their own stories – again, this is a novel constructed around a series of encounters and conversations – affords an opportunity to explore the impact of intertextual practices on the cohesiveness of a work as a whole. Quite wonderfully, the Bieresch themselves are allowed to engage in the commentary. They are wise to the deceptive and misleading quality of their sacred works as Hans is repeatedly cautioned with warnings reinforced by quotations from their own wise men:
We’ve made the pure texts into filthy lucre. And why?—We sought consolation for the brows we’d beaten bloody on the walls of the texts.—“The texts are mazes,” says Gikatilla, “a shallow, shimmering stream at first, with calm water, a calm current. But beware! Never go astray in their punctuation’s swaying reeds! Beware the snare of the comma! Endless passages lead from period to period. Each dash is thin ice—and through its glass you see darkly!”—Words are mirrors, and a sentence is a room made of mirrors.
Even on a personal level the Bieresch characters recognise that their words are not necessarily their own. The young sexton De Selby describes a common sensation: “Do you know the feeling? Often when I say something, some phrase, my name, a word—I feel that it’s not me speaking. The children play that. We call it ‘ablaking’.” And he should know, De Selby expounds theories that echo views proposed in the very same Flann O’Brien novel that affords him his name.
The play of borrowed literary, philosophical and cultural elements against a worldview that reflects the social isolation of a community of outcasts provides an excellent framework for the examination of the depths of dispossession – the Bieresch do not own their land, their belongings or their words. Curiously, the one thing they do own is their mirror and the reflection it contains; an individual’s mirror is sacred. But there is more on offer here. An intertextual novel is an invitation to the reader to read deeper, to explore the undercurrents and wander off the beaten path. If one desires a guidebook, direct quotations and significant influences are footnoted. This, it turns out, is unique to the English translation; part one of the original, first published in German as Halfway, was simply appended with a note indicating that passages in italics were taken from a variety of writers:
Adorno, Arp, Beckett, Borges, Cendrars, Garcia Marquez, Gomringer, Grimm, Handke, Heidegger, Joyce, Kafka, Kraus, Kues, Lovecraft, Marx, Mon, O’Brien, Poliakov, Rühm, Salten, Schmeller, Scholem, Sperber, Stifter, Vonnegut, Widmer, Iwener – partly verbatim, partly mutilated, partly warped.
According to the author, this information was added precisely to entice the reader into the labyrinth by finding the quotation and to go on reading from there:
Thus the whole thing was meant to be part of a texture, a kind of a live, gap-free transplant fitting in with a framework of texts.
Among the Bieresch offers a dynamic reading experience, akin to following mazes within mazes, navigating layers of disorientation and unveiling mirrors that reflect back on one another. Upon entry, one calls to mind Kafka’s The Castle, a work that Hoffer describes in the Afterword as an important initial influence. Kafka’s voice continues to resound throughout; his words are evoked in Bieresch scriptures, sayings and folk wisdom and create an overriding continuity of tone. And, like the works of Kafka, Borges, Beckett and many of the other writers who have loaned their words and inspiration, this is a novel that can be read and re-read with each visit opening new vistas, hinting at new meanings, and fostering new perspectives as one explores the bizarre world of the Bieresch. - Joseph Schreiber
Klaus Hoffer lives in Graz, where he has born in 1942. He has also published essay and story collections and examinations of Kafka’s work. He taught German literature in Austria, Senegal and the USA and was writer in residence at Grinnell College and Washington University, St. Louis. He is a prominent translator of such authors as Kurt Vonnegut, Nadine Gorimer, Raymond Carver, Joseph Conrad and Lydia Davis.