[Translated into English as The Have-Nots by Helen Atkins, Europe Editions]
It was with trepidation that I picked up this novel, an gift by a dear old friend. It won the 2006 German book prize, besting as good a novel as Ilija Trojanow’s Der Weltensammler. Whence the trepidation, you ask? Whatever books may be published off the radar, the body of books that constituted critically acclaimed German contemporary literature is a sad affair. Look at the 2006 short list. Both the Schulze and the Walser are so bad that I’d rate that year’s jury worse than this year’s Booker Jury. Dito other fêted writers. Judith Hermann? Pascal Mercier? If you listen closely you can hear me shudder right now. Oh, maybe I’m just picky. Anyway, to cut a long story short, Die Habenichtse is an excellent novel. Hacker may be somewhat sloppy with her prose at times, but more than makes up for it.
Oh, but what is it about? This basic question is hard to answer satisfactorily. Not that the plot is that convoluted or hidden, but this novel is necessarily about plot. A rough sketch of the plot could read like this: after 9/11 a Yuppie couple, he working as a lawyer, she working as a designer, move to London because the husband, Jakob, has been offered a job there. Dull alienation ensues, like straight from a mid-80s suburban novel. There are all the routine trappings. Man works too much, gets caught up in his work and his colleagues, wife (Isabelle) is lonely, consoles herself with a lover. The lover in question is a drug dealer. The dullness of this plot does not reflect badly on the novel though.
Katharina Hacker is an excellent writer, always in control of her matter. The plot, as we see quickly is one more tool in her nimble fingers. The novel is stuffed with these devices which directly evoke distinct references and feelings to the literate reader. There is the fact that it commences with 9/11, or that the law firm hiring Jakob is mainly concerned with the restitution of property stripped from Jewish fugitives by the Nazis.
Wir müssen hineingehen, sagte Jakob. Er bückte sich und hielt die Blumen, die gerade von seinem Rollkoffer rutschen wollten, fest. Isabelle? sagte er, wir können hier nicht stehenbleiben.
There are alcoholic parents, a brutally killed cat, a mistreated child and some highly erotic passages. And all of this in about 300 pages. The novel moves at an incredibly speed, hitting the reader with its images, characters, ideas, never letting up. This effect is all the more pronounced by the intricate construction: Jakob, Isabelle, the neighbor’s child Sara, Jim the dealer, their stories are told in interweaving chapters. What for? There is no conclusion where the different threads come together to produce surprise or shock. The structure does, however, emphasize the complexities of the novel, by emphasizing the general applicability of what may seem like particular problems. These problems are not hard to guess, they are not alluded to, the reader is bludgeoned over the head by them.
Thus, we turn again to the question of what the novel is about. A hint is found in Jakob’s ruminations upon researching details of the Shoah, buried in heaps of books, Bajohr, Friedländer and a shelf full of others. In a telephone conversation Jakob vents his shock
Ich habe mich noch nie so sehr mit Deutschland beschäftigt, sagte Jakob am Telefon zu Hans, – ich frage mich, ob ich all diese Bücher in Berlin hätte lesen können. –Warum nicht? sagte Hans empfindlich, und Jakob las ihm eine Passage aus Friedländers Buch […] vor, wie Kinder einen Juwelierladen stürmten im Juni 1938, wie sie ihn plünderten und ein kleiner Junge dem jüdischen Besitzer ins Gesicht spuckte.
There we have, in a nutshell, the reason why the novel is set in London. The distance to Germany allows the novel to treat Germany and its past without having to resort to the olde dance, the guilt game: y’know. Germans were victims, too, you can’t collectively blame Germans, and are we not nowadays grown out of the whole thing? It’s sickening, and Hacker brilliantly sidesteps the issue by having Jakob realize the extent of the disaster and also, time and again, the fact that it was man-made. We did this, and freed from Germany, Jakob awakens to that fact. Not just past Germans, he is also made aware of the hidden stashes of anti-Semitism in present Germany, and of the ways Germans hide behind alibi actions like, for instance, restituting property without truly coming to terms with what exactly caused Germans to persecute and industrially murder European Jewry.
Alexander Mitscherlich’s classic study of collective German repression, Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern becomes relevant in this context. The question “Und gibt es ein deutsch-jüdisches Zusammenleben? Ich bin gar nicht sicher” („Is there a German-Jewish cohabitation? I am not sure at all.”) is well asked given that in a city like Cologne right here, there is strong resistance against a Jewish museums while a couple of old geezers are allowed to host a major anti-Semitic installation on one of the most prominent and central places of Cologne. There is a strong and pronounced bitterness to many of these issues. The 9/11 reference at the beginning merely quietly contextualizes them. The Twin Towers make virtually no appearance once the book leaves the introductory passages and it’s a better book for it. Hacker knows which cards to play and which not to play. Thus, the novels feels heavy, but never heavy-handed (unlike this review).
In the meantime, in the present private disaster strikes the protagonists, especially, Isabelle and Jim. Here we return to what I called a dull plot. It is only dull if we expect a standard plot, if we expect to be moved or engaged by what shapes up to be, among other things, an unhappy love story. Victims, guilt etc are transposed to the private realm and then projected back again. The novel reduces everything to power structures, never more so than when it treats in-depth Isabelle’s affair with Jim. Hierarchies become painfully obvious. Gender hierarchies, economic hierarchies, even questions of anti-Semitism are transferred into the private realm. As I said, the writing is somewhat sloppy in places. It almost seems as if the writer isn’t particularly interested in crafting precise or poetic prose. Nothing about the rest, though, is the least sloppy, in my opinion. The novel is perfectly constructed, thoughtful, it works equally well on multiple levels, and, above all, and to counter the dry way I have been approaching it, it is endlessly entertaining. The speed, the writing and the pathos combine to form a truly great read, in my eyes.
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