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Books Full of Memories

April 28, 2012

Oh dear… I’m really so far behind with my posts – I wrote most of this one about a month ago, and never got around to finishing and posting it.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I always set myself reading goals not for a year or for a month, but for a season. During winter, I read quite a lot more than the eleven books I “have” to read each season, and even managed to beat my previous record, which was 32 books in summer 2009 (when I was “stuck” on an Sardinian campsite for over a month with nothing to do but read and swim).

Once I started working full time again, I had a lot less time to read than in December and January. I kept reading anyway, but at a much slower rate. So only five books to show for the last part of winter, bringing me to a total of 35 for three months, but they’re all books I have a lot to say about, books full of memories.

Again, it seems silly to write English reviews for books German books that have not been translated (well, Karl May might have been, but he’s probably not well known). But with some books, I just can’t help it – I have to go on and on about them.

31. Jenny-Mai Nuyen, Feenlicht [Fairy Light] (reread, German) and

32. Jenny-Mai Nuyen, Magierlicht [Magicians’ Light] (reread, German): Got their own review (otherwise this post would have gotten much too long.)

33. Karl May, Winnetou II (reread, German) and

34. Karl May, Winnetou III (reread, German):

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Karl May cracks me up. My mind is constantly jumping between, “Hahaha, Gary Stu!” and “slash fanfiction! Slash fanfiction!” Not because I want to write it, or even read it*, but because it is just begging to be written. I mean, that “he’s my enemy, but I don’t want to hurt him” thing Winnetou and Old Shatterhand have going on in the first book? And all that hugging and kissing and the descriptions of Winnetou’s hair?

OK, sorry. Karl May is, as far as I know, a phenomenon of the German-speaking world, so I should back up a little and tell you what it’s all about. Basically it is, German guy travels to the Wild West, acquires the name Old Shatterhand by knocking out his enemies with a simple fist punch to the head, becomes best friends and blood brothers with Winnetou the Apache chieftain, and goes on to have all sorts of adventures.

Old Shatterhand is just the best example of a Gary Stu– not only is he an obvious author insert (Karl May claimed he really had all those adventures), but he also knows everything, can do everything, never makes a mistake and everyone but the bad guys immediately likes him. I took a Mary Sue/Gary Stu test for him, just for fun, and came to a result of 100 points – and for 50 or more points, the verdict is, “Kill it dead.” I laughed so hard! It’s become a running gag between my best friend and me – whenever we’re talking about something particularly difficult or impossible, I’ll say, “Old Shatterhand can do it!”

And yet, despite all this ridiculousness, and the casual racism that is rather disturbing to read nowadays, but was probably quite normal in 1893 – I’m beginning to see the appeal of these books again. They’re good adventure stories, but not overly gory, and I think I was quite captivated the first time I read them, and there are some sentences that are genuinely funny. Not amusingly ridiculous, or hilariously outdated, but simply funny – a good turn of phrase, or a wonderfully absurd character description.

One thing I feel a little torn about is the “pretending not to be Old Shatterhand” thing… OK, not so much pretending as simply failing to mention his famous name to other characters, who believe him a total greenhorn and dandy, and revealing his identity only after days or weeks of travelling together. It was funny the first time around, but if it’s done three (or even four?) times in two books, it gets a little old.

Books full of memories… I didn’t actually read them until I was about seventeen, but it was impossible to grow up without absorbing some general knowledge long before then.

My first Winnetou-related memory is watching the second half of the third film with my childhood best friend and her sisters. They – knowing the whole story – found it dreadfully sad, while I, having been raised without a TV, was mostly thinking, “Who are these people?” But I picked up a vague idea of how the story would end, and over the next few years, I picked up a few more bits and pieces.

Then, my father brought home the second and third part from a flea market, and I actually read Karl May for the first time. I don’t even know how it started, but I started t read the books aloud to the Carpenter Brother, who was about ten years old at the time. I always hoped to get him hooked so he would keep reading on his own (he was never much of a reader), but he claimed he couldn’t, because he didn’t know how to pronounce all the names. Hah – as if I knew! I just made something up and pretended I knew. That Christmas, I hunted all over town for the first part as a present for the Carpenter Brother – one of the last times when I knew what to give him.

Fond memories… that was the time when the Carpenter Brother and I were closest. When we had mostly stopped fighting, and when we were still talking a lot (now, we simply do not have much to say to each other any more). I treasure these memories of sitting in my room together, reading, and me explaining things while I read.

If I had children, I’d want them to read Karl May, because it’s a classic, part of our cultural heritage, and because they’re not bad books. But they’re also hard to read, and sometimes horribly outdated in their views, so I’d not want younger children to read them by themselves. I think reading aloud again would be fun, to create more of the sort of memories the Carpenter Brother and I share.

The to-be-read pile got a little out-of-control and more than a little messy...

35. Käthe Recheis, Lena – Unser Dorf und der Krieg [Lena – Our Village and the War] (reread, German):

A book about Austria during World War 2 – if I can say that, because there was no Austria in that time.

It’s the story of a small life – Lena, the main character is neither a victim nor a hero, just a regular village girl, ten years old when Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938, just a regular girl who does get caught up in the enthusiasm of the first years of the war, but who has the luck of having parents who see more clearly than many others.

It’s a heart-wrenching book – sometimes funny, sometimes touching, but so often so sad – I don’t know how often I’ve read it, but some scenes still make me cry.

It’s a close and personal book for me for many reasons…

I was in my teens the first time I read it, like Lena.

I was at an age when I was beginning to realize that if we’d have been born fifty years earlier, the Clown Brother would be dead. Not just because he would not have got the medical care he needed, but because he’d have been killed. That just fifty years earlier, he’d have been seen as “unworthy of life”, and I’d never have danced with him, never seen him play soccer in the back yard or dress up, that I’d never have laughed at the faces he makes and the things he says, that he’d never have kissed me on the cheek.

A boy who was almost like a cousin for me growing up shares the name of one of Lena’s best friends. And while Bone-Hard’s father isn’t quite such a vagrant as that boy’s father, he does travel a lot, going to India every winter. My best friend’s father quit several apprenticeships when spring arrived and did what I so often dream of, just hike away. Just as Michel Mur in Lena does… and then he gets killed for it. This is one of the scenes that always, always makes me cry, and this time I made the mistake of reading it on the train… a little embarrassing.

And it also feels so very personal because it is set here, just a few kilometres from where I live. Käthe Recheis never names the exact place it is set, referring to it only as “the village”, but from the author bio, I know she grew up in the same municipality where I lived as a toddler, and she says in the epilogue that the book is partly autobiographical (and partly based on the recollections of friends and family), so we can assume the village in the book is based on her own. I attended grammar school in the same town as Lena (and, presumably, Käthe Recheis herself), I spent a lot of time in the forest along the same river where Lena and her friends play and swim, one scene in the book is set in my very own Small Town, and during the week I finished this book, I realized that from the Teeny Tiny Village Nursery, I can see the place the book once refers to as “the Fools’ Castle”** – the place where Michel Mur was killed, the place the Clown Brother would have been killed. I’ve been on a school trip there (and also to the closest concentration camp, which is mentioned in the book too), but that was not nearly as chilling as simply seeing it in the distance just when I’ve been thinking so much about that time, and what our lives would have been like if we’d been born fifty years earlier, and thinking that fifty years aren’t really all that long.

None of my grandparents ever spoke much about their experiences. My mother’s parents claim they were children and didn’t know much. I know both my paternal grandfather and his brother were soldiers, but they and their wives are all dead. I never knew them well enough to ask, and I don’t think they told much to their children.

I’ve always wished I knew more, but with Lena fresh in my mind, I can see why they didn’t want to speak about it. There’s so much pain, and even more, shame about what they did, what they had to do… reading it now, I practically saw, “PTSD” printed across some pages in big red letters.

So most of my stories of the war are stories told by things. The story of the bombs, told by the rubble-filled bomb crater we found in the garden of my parents’ house, the damage to the façade that was, according to the neighbour, caused by the same bombs that destroyed the houses on either side of it. That story, and the stories of the bombings in Lena, each making the other more real. The story told by the undetonated bombs that are still found from time to time. The story told by the three rusty pistols we found buried in the garden, the story of the fear of the invading troops.

It’s so strange to mix someone else’s memories with my own, to think of the square where I went to my Dutch classes and remember that there was a meadow there, a meadow where dogs were mustered for the war…

Having read this book made work rather strange for a couple of days. I have a lot of old customers, many of them eighty or older, and for a while, I could not talk to them without thinking, “What did you see? What did you know? What did you live through, what did you do?”

And yet, even though there are so many painful and sad scenes in it, there is one scene that never fails to make me laugh, and it was the reason why I wanted to read it right after ‘Winnetou’, because it references Karl May. He is mentioned on and off throughout the book, because his books were popular then, so Lena and her family read a lot of them, but they always poke fun at them, too.

And there is this one scene… no, wait. One more bit of background info, bear with me. Lena’s grandfather had a friend called Hiadler, who cheated him out of a lot of money. But here in this part of Austria, ‘Hitler’ could also be pronounced as  ‘Hiadler’.

Weeell… let’s see if I can do that scene justice if I translate it… It’s the first Sunday after the village’s chaplain has been executed by the Nazis, and Lena’s grandfather insists on going to the inn after mass, as he usually does. One of the villagers, Gustav Perwanger, has just been going on about how right it was to execute the chaplain.

Into this silence, as loud as only the hard of hearing talk, Grandfather’s voice suddenly sounded. “That Hiadler, he was always a scoundrel!”

To call the Führer a scoundrel, with Gustav Perwanger, the inspector and Karl Kandler for witnesses, was suicide. (…)

The inspector rose. “You all heard it!” he said.

Grandfather drained his glass.

Gustav Perwanger started screaming. He screamed that Grandfather would regret calling the Führer a scoundrel. In his excitement, he spluttered, and the rest of what he screamed sounded something like this, “The Führer… a scoundrel… the Führer… a scoundrel…”

Grandfather slowly set down his glass. “Gustav,” he said, “don’t scream like that, I’m not deaf. How can you compare our Führer to a hatter from Enns, of whom everybody knows he cheated decent people. Gustav, that goes too far.”

“I didn’t compare the Führer to your damn hatter from Enns,” Gustav Perwanger screamed, but apparently not loudly enough. Grandfather put his hand behind his ear and misunderstood him.

“Don’t swear when you talk about the Führer, Gustav! You’re not allowed to do that!” Grandfather got up. “Our beloved Führer is like Old Shatterhand!” he called. “He knocks down his enemies by the dozen. Like this! And like this! And like this! And like this!”

At each “and like this”, Grandfather struck out with his balled fist and dealt invisible enemies all around the famous punch to the temple with which Karl May, in his books, finished off all the people that didn’t suit him. So to speak, Grandfather filled the room with felled and struck-down enemies.

It was great. It only was a pity that Perwanger, the inspector and Karl Kandler didn’t know how we mocked Old Shatterhand at home. (…)

Grandfather took my hand. “Come, Leni, we’re going home.” He saluted all around, and Gustav Perwanger was so confused he saluted back. Only the inspector stood ramrod-straight and didn’t open his mouth. He was angry, but it was no good. He couldn’t report Grandfather. It was impossible to put someone into prison for saying the Führer finished off his enemies by the dozen. After all, our propaganda claimed the same thing every day.

I love imagining this scene. It’s one of the scenes I never forget, but I didn’t remember that last line – made me laugh so much.

There is one other line that always comes to mind when I think of the book, a sentence spoken by Lena’s older brother.

“I’m not afraid of dying,” Christoph said. “But I like living so much.”

Such a simple sentence, and yet, I find it so beautiful. And wise. And true… it’s how I feel, too.

I should stop babbling on and on about a book that most of you won’t ever read. If it hasn’t been translated in the 14 years since it was published, I don’t think it ever will. But for German speakers, especially for people from my corner of Austria, it is a book that really deserves to be read. And it’s another book I want to keep around, both because I want to reread it every now and then, and because I want my hypothetical future children to read it.


* Nothing against slash, but mostly it just puzzles me, and some of it is just plain stupid.

** Now I’ve given you a whole lot of clues, and anyone who can read German should now be able to find out where I live and work.

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