Marcel Beyer: Kaltenburg

Beyer, Marcel (2008), Kaltenburg, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-41920-5

Educational books have always been popular, and there are different varieties of these kinds of texts. There are books, for example from which you learn things, although not always correct things. Most historical novels are written that way, Michael Crichton (whose name, my paperback of Jurassic Park informs me, “rhymes with frighten”) built himself a career out of this, so has the diligently dull (or dully diligent?) Richard Powers etc. These books hand you a large amount of information (not always correct (I’m looking at you, Michael)) that you may not have come by otherwise. Then there are books that concentrate upon being insightful, making you see knowledge in a different way. There are vastly more of those around, because that group contains both novels that rely upon the reader’s knowledge of a topic and those from which you learn things). Marcel Beyer’s latest novel, Kaltenburg, longlisted for last year’s Deutscher Buchpreis, is a strange fellow in that it is both a book that imparts knowledge to its readers, in a rather exotic area of expertise; it is also insightful, but in a completely different area. Beyer’s trick here, basically, is to talk about one topic but hinting at another that may or may not be connected with the first thing, and the longer the novel goes on, the clearer the reader sees the underlying theme, until, at the end, he’s completely caught up in Beyer’s ruminations and thinking. This is a masterful novel, by a great writer. Kaltenburg is easily the best contemporary German novel I have read in years (and I gather you remember me swooning over Trojanow’s work), by a writer who is completely and utterly in control of his craft.

Kaltenburg is narrated by an elderly ornithologist named Hermann Funk, a retired professor, who is living in Dresden. One day he is visited by a translator who asks him for advice and information. She is preparing for a conference and wants to learn ornithologist terms both in English and in German. We don’t know how she came up with Funk’s name, or why he agreed to do it; as a retired professor he certainly didn’t need any money. As we enter the book, their discussion has been underway for a while, we’re basically catching up. The whole novel is written from a first person perspective, except when Funk tells us about events that he hasn’t witnessed himself. He then launches into a seeming third person narrative, but it is still his voice we’re hearing, although it may not always be transparently so. The structure of the narrative is highly complex, Beyer constantly shifts gears. Sometimes it’s a plain q & a dialogue between Funk and the woman, sometimes Funk digresses and talks for a while. It’s important to note that, even in the middle of what may seem like a conventional narrative, small asides tell us that we are still in the interview, especially when he steps aside to let the translator ask a question, and yes, it’s a stepping aside; sometimes her questions can only be inferred through odd remarks and phrases, sometimes we don’t get any hints, but the nature of such a dialogue suggests that things have been left out. These comments of mine may sound extraneous but much of this novel is concerned with gazes and domination and I consider it a brilliant idea of Beyer’s to reproduce several of his ideas on, let’s call it: a formal level, as well.

Funk’s monologues are highly associative, partly modeled upon the example of Proust’s memoire involontaire. From birds he segues into personal anecdotes with birds and then, more and more, into reminiscences of his life as a student and companion of Ludwig Kaltenburg, the world famous ethologist, ornithologist and zoologist. It is in one of those reminiscences that we enter the discussion, quickly learning the basic historical parameters of the novel. Funk and his parents had lived in Posen (then Germany, after WWII Poland) at the same time that Kaltenburg, a Vienna native, had. Funk’s parents had encouraged his early love for animals in general and birds in special, putting him into contact with two students of Kaltenburg’s (who, at the same time, were soldiers in the Wehrmacht), one who went on to become a famous artist and one who went on to become a famous documentary filmmaker. Early we learn that an event unknown to young Hermann had sundered Hermann’s parents and Kaltenburg who used to be a regular visitor to the Funk household. As the war drew to a close, both the Funks and Kaltenburg moved to Dresden. In the Dresden firebombings in February 1945, Funk’s parents died. The account of the disastrous night is the single most moving part of the book (many reviewers have been put off by the fact that much of the book does not go down the same sentimental road, but the mechanism of the novel makes this necessary (more on this in a minute)). We then loosely, by no means strictly chronologically, rather in leaps and bounds and rebounds, follow Kaltenburg’s career.

That career takes up again at the University of Leipzig (near Dresden) where he took a chair shortly after the war until, in the 1970s, Kaltenburg left the GDR for West Germany where he published books that made his international fame, books that left his academic turf and contrived to make general statements about human behavior. At this point, the account of Kaltenburg’s career ends, the novel returns to the present and leaves Funk and the translator to wrap things up. Although this is not quite correct: actually, the book is preceded by a prologue of sorts that starts with the end of Kaltenburg’s life, with him missing the birds he left behind when he moved to West Germany, with the controversy that erupted over his most famous books. So, even before we enter the narrative proper, Beyer tells us where we’ll end up and takes thus any direct suspense out of the book, only to replace it by a tension of sorts. The book works like a mystery without any murder, but we the readers still want to understand how things are connected, how the controversy about his late books ties in with the rather harmless and slow assemblage of anecdotes about his time in Dresden; additional suspense is derived from the constant hints at what happened in Posen and from the dark undercurrent below the light banter about birds. If, unlike me, you have a working memory, you may learn quite a bit about birds, ornithology and related areas. A huge part of the book appears to have no other purpose than to lecture you about different domestic birds, bird classifications and how to behave in the company of birds. To read these parts in that way only, perhaps with a few additional thoughts about the hints to Funk’s personal history and past events in Posen, would be a gross mistake, however.

We not only learn about birds, but rather, as I said, about bird classifications and related issues. We learn about the scientific gaze, about the workings of a scientific mind, about his work with living specimen, all these aspects are not simply explained to us, but shown, and repeated time and again. Beyer works hard to make us understand the parameters of this thinking, only to deliver a punch to the guts at the end by showing the consequences of applying such a thinking to humans. There are many atheists I know who think not believing in God is a “daring” (that word is so prolific among a certain segment of reactionary atheists that it starts to lose meaning) gesture that constitutes an ethics all of itself in a way. It doesn’t. What Adorno called the instrumentelle Vernunft has shown its dirty mug during the Third Reich but it has not been invented by Nazis, it and its destructive, anti-human thrust is inherent in much scientific thought before and after that. To anatomize a human being, to subject it to a normed and implicitly contemptuous gaze, that is always problematic, this we know, and it is one of the major points of Kaltenburg. It is a frequent mistake of books that grapple with the Third Reich and its heritage for post-war Germany (including hundreds of thousands of Nazis at universities, in the courts and in political parties) to achieve their effects through making their readers feel guilty. This is not at all how Kaltenburg works, it does not slam sad images of the Shoah etc at its readers at all. It wants its readers to understand, not to weep.

Understand who it is, among others, that was killed in the Dresden firebombings, understand, also, the continuities in German culture, understand what, in seemingly innocuous thinking, is problematic and what kind of thinking could lead to which results. None of this is obvious and none of this is hammered into its readers. It assumes that its readers are well read in German history, cultural and political. I know a surprising amount of people, Germans and British especially, who run their mouth about German history without having read or understood even a modicum of what Beyer presupposes in his book. You need not bone up on German history in order to read this book; I do recommend, however, to look up all the historical names and references that are dropped in the book. Wiki the cities and the names and you’ll be fine, but I do recommend this. As for other things: some readers will see (the introductory section about Kaltenburg’s late career does hint at this quite directly), some won’t, that the character of Ludwig Kaltenburg is a thinly veiled depiction of Konrad Lorenz. The artist mentioned above has his real counterpart in the legendary artist Joseph Beuys and the documentary filmmaker has his in Heinz Sielmann. Konrad Lorenz’s actual career is dissimilar in a few aspects but Beyer, instead of concentrating on the continuities of the Third Reich in West Germany which are all too obvious, he depicts those in the GDR (not absolving West Germany, on the contrary).

Of necessity this review contains only a rough account of the riches of Kaltenburg. There are many aspects, as the opposition of art and barbarism, the role of Proust’s suite of novels, the behavior of birds and the petty everyday murder of them. Much of this would fit in the overall reading of the book I have suggested, some would not. Marcel Beyer has written a multi-layered book that is unlike any other novel I have ever read. His nuanced approach to the topic that contains a harsh, unmitigated indictment without resorting to guilt and shock, the incredibly complex construction of his narrative, it’s really beyond words. It’s really a joke that he did not make the shortlist of the Deutscher Buchpreis, but a veritable hack like Ingo Schulze did. Beyer’s novel should win every prize available.

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5 thoughts on “Marcel Beyer: Kaltenburg

  1. Pingback: Pyrite: Why you shouldn’t read Ingo Schulze « shigekuni.

  2. Pingback: Clemens J. Setz: Soehne und Planeten « shigekuni.

  3. Pingback: Werner Bräunig: Rummelplatz « shigekuni.

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