AmazonCrossing is Amazon’s new venture into translating world literature into English. An interview with Jeff Belle, the head of Amazon Crossing suggests that this is a genuine attempt to rectify the imbalance in translations (far more books are translated from English than into English). No doubt there are also strong commercial motives for setting up AmazonCrossing, but anything which brings more translations into the English language is to be welcomed.
The first major success of AmazonCrossing was Oliver Pötzsch’s Hangman’s Daughter and they have followed this with a new book in the same series, The Beggar King which is available in either paperback or Kindle editions.
Oliver Pötzsch is a descendant of one of Bavaria’s leading dynasties of executioners and so has an interest in basing his series of historical novels on the hangman of Schongau, Jacob Kuisl, and his daughter Magdalena. The book opens with a short prologue set in 1662 during the 30 years war which gives readers a glimpse of what rape and pillaging meant for a peaceful rural community. It is worth noting the names of those involved for they will feature 25 years later in the book we are about to read.
Jakob Kuisil leaves his home-town of Schonburg to travel to the regional centre of Regensburg where his sister is reportedly dying of cancer. Back in Schonburg, Jakob’s daughter Magdalena has troubles of her own. Her boyfriend Simon is a partially-qualified medical doctor and between the two of them they have uncovered corruption in the home of a city dignitary who has poisoned one of his maids who he made pregnant. When Magdalena’s home is attacked and burnt in retribution for their discovery, the two lovers decide to follow Magdalena’s father to Regensburg to try to make a new life for themselves, not knowing that they are going to get embroiled in a much bigger scandal behind the heavily guarded walls of the city.
Both towns are situated in Bavaria on the River Danube and but it is hard to relate the beautiful towns of today with the squalor and filth found there in the 17th century and depicted so vividly in this book! Oliver Pötzsch shows every sign of being an expert on the life of the times and one strong point of the book is its description of communal life in 1662. We learn much about the commercial and civic affairs of the town and I would imagine that Oliver Pötzsch’s increasingly successful books could start a new tourist boom in Regensburg (it is already a world heritage site).
Oliver Pötzsch is a very fine story-teller. The book moves along at a fast pace, swapping back and forth between Jakob and Magdalena’s stories as they get more deeply involved in the crimes and conflicts of the city. When Jakob arrives in Regensburg he finds that his sister and her husband have been deeply implicated in a criminal conspiracy, but it quickly become apparent that this is a set-up and as Jakob begins to untangle the complex mysteries surrounding his sister he finds himself becoming a target for some very vicious people.
Magdalena and her boyfriend Simon have difficulties of their own having arrived in the city with no visible means of support. As they search for Jakob they also attract the attention of the conspirators and become fugitives living among the beggars in the stinking cellars and passages of derelict houses.
Apart from the gripping (if rather unbelievable) story contained in this book, for me the pleasure in reading was Pötzsch’s wonderful evocation of life in Regensburg. We learn so much about the various industries of the city, whether rafting on the Danube or brewing and baking within the city walls. When his scenes are set in inns I could almost sense the smells and noise as I read about the disgusting food being served to the customers. I gained a powerful impression of what it must be like to live without main drainage or medical services, and when Simon is asked to treat the diseases of some of the beggars in return for their assistance in finding Jakob, we get a catalogue of ailments which have long been expunged from modern western life.
We read much about Jakob’s job as an executioner and doubtless this is based on Pötzsch’s impeccable research. The executioner was not only responsible for terminating the lives of assorted criminals, but was also responsible for the sanitation of the town. When Jakob falls into the hands of the Regensburg executioner later in the book he learns what it is like to be on the receiving end of a 16th century interrogation in which confessions were obtained by a wide variety of gruesome means (sensitive readers may wish to skim over these passages).
I don’t usually enjoy historical novels but have to admit that this one gripped me from the start and kept me turning the pages and I hardly noticed its substantial length (512 pages). It is rather too sensational, but I found myself so swept up in the flow of events that I was able to leave my occasional incredulity at the door. I am pleased that AmazonCrossing took Oliver Pötzsch on board and I expect he will become as well-known in the UK as he is in Germany as a result.