Katharina Hacker: The Have-Nots

Hacker, Katharina (2006), Die Habenichtse, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-45910-2
[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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A Horrifying World

“It was a horrifying world, but it was a real one. How many of us can say we’ve made a new world out of the things that terrify and move us?” At least a few of the women writing horror today can say just that. And there’s no way to mistake the new worlds they’re making for the work of men.

That was from an overview of recent Horror fiction written by women and although I’m generally wary of the olde ‘women write differently than men’ claim, and have yet to find an instance of a decently argued statement of that claim, the quoted point is interesting.

Justification

The wonderful Andrew Gelman annotates his use of ‘Kafkaesque’ in the main body of a post of his with this great footnote-ish statement:

I think I am ideally qualified to use the term Kafkaesque, having never read anything by Kafka except the first two pages of that story they give you to read in high school, where Gregor Samsa wakes up as a bug. I’ve read too much Orwell to be comfortable with “Orwellian.”

He’s right, you know.

Tomorrows

But when I think “tomorrow” there is a gap in my head, a blank – as if I were falling through emptiness. Tomorrow never comes. (Jean Rhys / Good Morning Midnight)

I have been in bed half the day, recovering from last night’s debauchery. In a way they produced a whole enjoyable day. Drinking and carnal excesses are mind-numbing enough, and feeling sick and tired half this day, too. Being thus numbed the present moment takes on a certain luminance.

These days I seem unable to think beyond the present moment or at best the next week. Looking at my calendar I am often surprised to see how fast time has marched by. But I don’t actually care. I have deadlines to meet and miss them continuously. It’s like I am waiting for everything to be, finally, over. The books and copies and the paper in the background – that’s just pretense. I am biding my time. There is no tomorrow. People are expecting you to plan for the future, apply for a job, a phd program, something. I don’t. I feel so unhappy at my present job, because I want to teach, write. The opportunities for me to do so are slim, however, decent phd programs only take the top of the crop and looking over the printouts to my left, I feel my grade to be turning out pretty bad. Not summa cum laude anyway, which is what I would need. I’d be happy to teach anywhere but no one’ll take me. Which is no biggie since there is no tomorrow ergo there are no plans to be made. There’s only now, and now may be over any time. I just need a little push or a shove.

Afraid

If I could put it into words it might go, she was thinking. Sometimes you can put it into words -almost- and so get rid of it -almost. Sometimes you can tell yourself I’ll admit I was afraid today. I was afraid of the sleek smooth faces, the rat faces, the way they laughed in the cinema. I’m afraid of escalators and dolls’ eyes. But there aren’t any words for this fear.

from Jean Rhys’ story “The Sound of the River”