I have wasted far too much time on Haruki Murakami’s new three volume 1Q84. Its one of those books which is just good enough to make you want to carry on reading, but not quite good enough to make you feel pleased to be reading it. Its of vast length, and I reached the end of book one and have now put it back on the shelf (well, in my “pending” folder on the Kindle), to be returned to when I’m languishing in solitary confinement in a prison cell.
Book bloggers can’t afford to get bogged down in a mediocre book for they end up with nothing to write about. And I don’t feel inspired to write anything at all about 1Q84 – plenty of other people have had a go at it (“once again Murakami has produced something that is truly magical. . .”) and I don’t want to spoil their party.
On the other hand, After Midnight, but Irmgard Keun really is worth reading and manages to say more in 160 pages than Murakami does in 900.
Set in 1930’s Frankfurt, After Midnight tells the story of Sanna, a young woman who finds herself embroiled in controversy among friends and relatives who have very mixed opinions about the new Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. Sanna is not political, but at a time when politics is forcing its way into every aspect of life, even a love-lorn young woman finds herself having to be careful what she says. Even close relatives can betray you if you seem half-hearted about the Nazi party.
Sanna’s best friend Gerti has the misfortune of being in love with a person of mixed-race (i.e. partly Jewish). Sanna finds it hard to understand why the beautiful Gerti has fixed on Dieter Aaron when there are plenty of men around the authorities would let her love. Sanna finds life so confusing,
Its hard enough to know your way around all the rules the authorities lay down for business – business as we all know can be very trickily organised – and now we have to know the rules for love too. It isn’t easy, it really isn’t. Before you know it, you may find yourself castrated or in prison, which isn’t pleasant. Love is supposed to be all right and German women are supposed to have children, but before you do that, some kind of process involving feelings is called for. And the law says no mistakes must be made in this process. I suppose the safest thing is not to love anyone at all. For as long as that’s allowed.
The fascinating thing about this book is the street-level accounts of conversations and relationship. Irmgard Keun is adept at describing the lives of ordinary people as they go about their business. I was reminded of Hans Fallada’s books, but there is more humour and a lighter touch about After Midnight, particularly in the descriptions of afternoon and evening sessions in bars and café in which Keun’s writing sparkles with life and humour.
I particularly enjoyed the story of Hitler’s arrival in Frankfurt in grand procession. Sanna and her friend have been dragged up to a balcony window to watch the proceedings. A thrill of expectation surges through the crowds as they hear the motor cavalcade, and just as Hitler’s car passes,
A little sky-blue ball came rolling out of the ranks of the crowd and into the street, making for the car. It was little Berta Silias, who’d been chosen to break through the crowd, because the Fuhrer often likes to be photographed with children. But he can’t have felt like it that this time. Berta was left standing there, a little solitary speck with a huge bouquet of flowers.
Later on in the day, Berta’s family and friends gather in the Henninger Bar and Berta is persuaded to recite the poem that her father had written for her to recite to Hitler.
A little German maid you see
A German mother I shall be
My Fuhrer, and I bring to thee
The fairest flowers of Germany
Sanna and her friends fail to catch the new spirit of Germany and before long they are being classed as dissidents. This non-political girl find that politics affects everything and she has to make some terrible decisions. The writer’s skill is in blending the more serious passages with a generally satirical commentary on the new mood in Germany. In thinking of the German people under Nazi rule as a homogeneous mass, we can forget that by the time Hitler came to power, a considerable opposition movement had been eliminated by the most brutal means. Those who were not wholly for him were assassinated or exiled, and Irmgard Keun records some poignant stories of those who had to make terrible choices in order to survive.
I am grateful to Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month for introducing me to this book. I was also fascinated to read about the life of Irmgard Keun on Wikipedia. Her books were banned by the Nazis and she was forced into exile – evidently After Midnight is based on first-hand experience. I highly recommend it as an insightful read about terrible times, but made accessible by a warm human touch which makes this an enjoyable reading experience.