Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner and Michael Hofmann (translator)
|Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner and Michael Hofmann (translator)|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: A very feisty read, from 1930s Berlin, regarding teenaged gang members and their lot.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 224||Date: March 2016|
It's Berlin, and the Nazis are on their way to power, even if they will never cross these pages themselves. The city – huge, glamorous, bustling, vicious in the way it can swallow people – is home to a countless hoard of teenagers, but we focus on just a few, most of whom have been in some corrective institution or other before now. They call themselves the Blood Brothers, even if all they share is the most unglamorous drudgery of going from one doss-house to another, balancing the cost of a few cigarettes with that of a warm room for a few hours or some stale rolls to eat. But en route to them is another 'Borstal' escapee, Willi. Surely his fate is going to be nothing if not more of the same?
To start with, it's clear to see why this was taken on board by the literati in early 1930s Berlin. It must stand as a landmark title, for it really is quite blatant about its qualities. Prime of those is the kinetic urgency of it all – it’s not long and we get it in large print, meaning the pages begin to turn themselves. The narrative never really goes into purely adult territory, but does share the urgency and grittiness of this life – the need of the characters and their industry (when it arrives for some of them) comes across superbly, as does the horror of lost innocence. It has the compelling need that the characters have down to a T, so while we might not feel every blistered foot, every pubescent cigarette-smoker's initiation into alcohol and tarts, we do see the milieu of this story brilliantly. And when the book takes just a few welcome pages to discuss how Berlin itself sees this notoriety as something to be glamorised (Tschuss, Mackie Messer) it only adds to its worth.
Part of that worth does come from the source of this book. The author was apparently a journalist and social worker, but only managed this book, which made him renowned to such an extent the Nazis, who got into power when it was still a hit, never let him produce another, and seem to have swamped all documentation of his end in mystery. I can see them burning this now, for – while it won't strike the reader as ridiculously galling – it certainly has an earthiness about it, and in the lengthy chapter of a dangerous train ride definitely has the chance of being read as a kind of copycat-baiting devilment.
But that was the 1930s – what is the response to it in 2016? Well, like I say it's high energy, but some of that comes at the expense of character. The end (without giving anything away) wraps up everyone's situation, and you reach there without having got a grip on several of the gang. Hardly anyone gets a description beyond a couple of words. Some of the appeal will derive from the history behind this book – the way it was unconsidered for decades until someone in Germany changed the title (the original German alludes to the point-perfect geographic detail of this Berlin, and the university of the streets these kids graduate from) and made it a hit anew. I don't think it suffers at all from showing its age, although the style – leaping in and out of third person – does feel quite antiquated at times. But I do think it retains the clarity, the urgency and the social charge it always had. So you might not see anything to inspire making the author vanish, as he seemed to do, but you will have a diaphanous picture in your mind of these old-before-their-time youths that will not leave your vision for some time.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
File next to Reunion by Fred Uhlman for a different look at the same time and place.
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