Anyone interested in understanding Europe in the 20th century, or in the fascinating metropolis that is Berlin, or in a riveting depiction of down-and-out youth who refuse to surrender to the system–will want to pick up Blood Brothers.
Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann. Other Press, 176 pp, $14.95.
By Kai Maristed
Muckraking, the exposure of social horror stories practiced since the 1900s by journalists, novelists, and nowadays documentary film makers, was never limited to its well-known American and British standard-bearers. One proof in hand: the sensational, first and only novel by a German social worker and journalist named Ernst Haffner. Blood Brothers was published in 1932 to general acclaim, only to land the following year on the book-burning bonfires of the newly installed Nazi government. Haffner’s opus went into oblivion, and soon Haffner himself disappeared from all records.
That was eighty years ago. Now, thanks to the German independent publisher Metrolit and in this country, Other Press, Blood Brothers is back in print. And it’s making a roaring comeback: Haffner’s terse and tense novel was the surprise runaway hit of the 2013 Frankfurter Book Fair. The writer remains a mystery; his book’s resurrection is a victory.
In its intent and in its hard-hitting page-by-page impact, Blood Brothers both invites and stands up to comparison with the muckraking milestones of, e.g., Jacob Riis or Theodore Dreiser, who also couched his findings in fiction. Among writers working today, Barbara Ehrenreich’s undercover explorations of the real lives of the working poor parallel Haffner’s mixing of cold, hard-won facts with unquenchable indignation. Every muckraker needs a beat: Haffner’s territory was the lives of boys remanded between the wars as Wards of the State. How big an issue was this? It’s estimated that in 1932, Berlin alone ‘sheltered’ up to 50,000 jobless and mostly homeless youth. Some had been orphaned by WWI, others were victims of the seemingly endless Depression and resulting dissolution of working class families. The youth clustered together for mutual warmth and support in so-called ‘Wild Cliques’– small, fluid gangs. At first focused on peer culture, loyalty, and finding cheap and crazy good times, the gangs became increasingly hardened, and reliant on the only economic activities open to a paperless minor: theft and prostitution. Through the fictional lens of a handful of Berlin gang members trying to survive the winter, Blood Brothers documents the typical trajectories of such boys both inside and outside the harsh institutions they schemed to escape from at any cost.
If the boys can hustle a few marks, a good time looks like this: They go to
the bar used by all the gangs around Alexanderplatz, the Rueckerklause. You can stand outside and watch the cooks frying batches of potato pancakes. The greasy scraps of smoke drift into every corner of the unlit, sinister, and unsavory bar…more than just a bar. It’s a kind of home for those who don’t have a home…The unappetizing buffet, the beer-sodden tables… They set about scoffing their rolls and liver sausage….Only dark, barbarous sounds: the grunts with which the stomach expresses its satisfaction… They work their jaws… their expressions seem to say: Don’t it feel good to be eating, and knowing there’s more to come…expressions of gratitude and pride are for Jonny, who once more has saved their bacon.
Or this, in an even less savory establishment:
The others go on with their senseless drinking. Just before closing time two old bloated whores join them… Heinz wanted to (put) on a show with the women. What about five times? The drunken ladies cacklingly availed themselves of the virile eighteen year old, and by the time their flabby thighs released him, he was bleeding.
If the line between a good night and a bad one seems blurred here, consider this alternative:
(Willi) can feel the cold settling in his bones. At Kronprinzenufer, he comes upon a sandbox marked BATG2. It’s half full. Willi climbs into it, and shuts the heavy lid over his head. He smokes his last cigarette, then he burrows down into the wet sand. The great and compassionate city of Berlin has afforded a bed for Willi Kludas…
Jonny, bold and handsome, is the gang’s adored boss, by virtue of his “energy…cold calculation…intellect and…absolute ruthlessness.” Fred, who gets a special kick out of stealing from his own hapless father, is Jonny’s equally ruthless lieutenant. The gang also includes Erwin, Ernst, and Heinz, skinny sixteen year olds ueber-grateful for fags, table scraps, and schnapps. Other lads join up (by the way, the Brothers’ ‘baptism’ rituals are not for delicate stomachs) and depart again, mostly under arrest.
But it’s Willi and his pal Ludwig, both on the lam from state homes oppressive as prisons, who emerge as central figures in Haffner’s tale. As the Brothers turn ever more toward crime, the two runaways’ struggle to hang on to their self-respect by refusing to abandon the tenets of bourgeois morality becomes the story’s main theme, creating an increasingly compelling thread of suspense right to the novel’s end. The odds couldn’t be stacked higher against them.
Blood Brothers reads as what it is: a first novel from a journalist, rather than the work of someone versed in the art of fiction. If it’s axiomatic (although not always true) that fiction should “show rather than tell,” Haffner’s style could be described as “show and tell.” The details of the boys’ lives are painstakingly, and painfully, rendered: if you ever need to know how to travel from Hamburg to Berlin in the dead of winter hanging for dear life onto the bottom of a freight train, this is your book! While offering such vivid eye-witness reporting, the novel also has a tendency to clobber the reader with pathetic set scenes and summations. A description of the prostitutes around Alex-Platz ends with “human beings are touted and appraised like lame nags in a horse market.” Clichés are scattered throughout: cops search with “a fine-toothed comb,” “chips… fall where they may,” in, of course, ‘the heartless endless wastes of Berlin.”
For all its unflinching portrayal of the destinies of the gang members, Blood Brothers isn’t concerned with individual portraiture, let alone character development. Women are minor characters who, unless biddies mothering the boys, come off very badly. (Has some commentator already remarked on the possible substratum of idealized homosexual love?) Everyone talks in the same dated slang. The boys gain no insights into their condition. Don’t look to this novel for cathartic fictional epiphanies, it’s not that kind of book. Jonny remains a distant figurehead, Willi and Ludwig are interchangeable in their thoughts and reactions, and the rest of the fellows are hard to tell apart.
It’s what is done unto them, and how they, clever and desperate as starving rats, respond to the meagre options they are given, that matters, and this provides Haffner’s book–one could almost say treatise–with its fire. Blood Brothers was written to shout out scandal. To wake ordinary people and policy-makers to the plight of the boys he worked with, boys feared and locked up by the law-abiding middle-class. Boys forced into criminality by the system.
Novel, thinly disguised shock journalism, or heartfelt manifesto? Blood Brothers is all three. Haffner’s original 1932 title was Youth on the High-Road Berlin, a clear statement of the author’s socio-critical purpose. The present German title is Blood Brothers: a Berlin Clique Novel, which also underlines the historical/social setting. Although he was writing on the eve of the Nazi takeover of the Reichstag (not that he could foresee the calamitous future), Haffner doesn’t concern himself with the political waves roiling over the boys’ heads. Wisely, he planted no soapbox mouthpiece in their hard-scrabble, apolitical world.
One wonders what actual impact the book achieved in the year before it was banned. Certainly Haffner would have to feel mighty gratified by the current critical and popular reception in Germany. The praise has been exuberant, the novel hailed as if it was an archeological treasure. Blood Brothers fills a gap in the record; it gives the authentic flavor of down-and-out lives in the countdown to Germany’s zero hour. Berliners in particular are fascinated by the depiction of places they know so well. A palimpsest of place names, of collective memory and forgetting. In some cases (ach du liebe Alexanderplatz!) deja-vu all over again. But what about non-German readers? Let’s just say that anyone interested in understanding Europe in the 20th century, or in the fascinating metropolis that is Berlin, or in a riveting depiction of down-and-out youth who refuse to surrender to the system–will want to pick up Blood Brothers.
A note on the translation. Michael Hofmann, a prize-winning translator and estimable poet, has done a great service in bringing Blood Brothers to anglophone readers. That said, rendering the flavor of the famous Berlin dialect, which Germans call ‘Berlinerisch’ as if it were a separate language, must present a devilish challenge. Hofmann’s decision to go with a mix of cockney (dickey bird for word), challenged grammar (aincha, don’t for doesn’t) and colloquial Briticisms (kip, nick, bird and chap, borstal for the state homes) will work better for some readers, especially across the pond.
Kai Maristed studied political philosophy in Germany, and now lives in Paris and Massachusetts. She has reviewed for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and other publications. Her books include the short story collection Belong to Me, and Broken Ground, a novel set in Berlin.