Bertolt Brecht: War Primer

Brecht, Bertolt (1994), Kriegsfibel, Eulenspiegelverlag
ISBN 3-359-00173-7

“Here, Kunert, look at this, see whether it’s publishable…”, Bertolt Brecht, the titan of modern German drama asked a young acolyte of his. That acolyte was Günter Kunert, a major GDR poet, and he recalls the request and the manuscript in question in a memorable chapter in his great autobiography, Erwachsenenspiele (Games for Grownups), which is still one of the best books about the life of writers in the GDR. The manuscript were a few cardboard pages on which pictures and poems were pasted by hand. These are what later became the Kriegsfibel, published in 1955/56. It has been translated by John Willet as War Primer. Since you might know that I am wary of any poetry translations, I cannot vouch for this one, especially since I’ve never seen it. The German book, though, is one of my very favorite books. It’s a huge black chunk of a book, and I have never moved without it, it’s really a book that affects me like few others do, and this is kind of surprising since it’s a rather simple affair. It consists of 69-85 (depending on the edition) newspaper cutouts, usually photographs with the caption that the newspaper provided. There is a picture of an American soldier cradling a dead Japanese soldier, and a picture of actress Jane Wyman, her crotch hung with military medals, and pictures of German helmets and many more. Brecht assembled those in his years in exile, mostly while he lived in the US. The history of his sojourn in the US is well known, I assume.

Each newspaper cutout was accompanied by a brief poem, four lines, basically two couplets, truly Brechtian in diction, rhythm and music. Brecht was a prolific writer, he wrote countless poems, there’s much in his work that doesn’t withstand closer scrutiny, but Brecht can be powerful, and he frequently is. He is a writer who fuses bawdy and political issues within single poems, he writes complex yet accessible tracts about political situations. The poems in the Kriegsfibel show him at his best. These are angry poems, funny poems, bawdy poems, almost all of Brecht’s range is in there, reduced to simple couplets. These are poems against the war, but they try not to make people oppose war by telling sob stories, by trying to make them feel sorry for the victims of war. Brecht shouts at you, in a musical, elegant, funny way, but he does shout, because what he has to say is important, it needs to be said. He tells people to consider the consequences of their actions. He tells us that a group of soldiers did not lose the war when their helmets were shot off their heads but when they put them on. Simple truths, truisms perhaps, simplistic truths, even, but Brecht is not trying to be an authority, he’s not trying to force us to understand His Truth. Brecht wants to make us think. To make us more aware of our actions. Of things.

In his autobiography, Kunert tells us of his enthusiasm for Brecht’s manuscript and of the trouble that Brecht had publishing it. It was too dirty, too pacifistic and other things, to go over well with those in power. This was, after all, after June 1953. Brecht assembled and pushed it through to publication and the world is richer for it. Kriegsfibel is a book that can set you right. It’s a masterful work of art and a burning black meteor of a book. It will always be with me.

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