The Germanist Hans Eichner’s novel opens with a joke. A Jewish joke, to be precise. We leap from there to the Jewish habit of travelling, voluntarily or not, and then all the way to Buchenwald concentration camp, in a single page. A man as well-read as Eichner clearly wanted to let us know what we’re letting ourselves in for in Kahn & Engelmann – a humorous family tale, a partial portrait of Vienna’s exiled and murdered Jewry, a dark reckoning with German history and literature. Buchenwald is next to Weimar, not an hour away from Goethe’s former home. The author is not the first to ask how the road from Goethe and Schiller could lead to Auschwitz, but he does so in a very touching and fascinating way.
His narrator Peter Engelmann tells us he is a vet in Haifa, bathing poodles by day to walk on the beach in the evening. But he had a different life before that, as a university professor of German literature in Canada – like Eichner himself, although the novel is not strictly autobiographical. And before that he lived a bohemian life in London, and in between he was interned in Australia, and before that he was a young Jew in Vienna.
The family story starts in rural Hungary under Kaiser Franz-Josef, when a strong-willed girl decides to marry a shoemaker against her wealthy father’s will. We follow Sidonie and Jószef and their four children on the arduous journey to Vienna, and their rising and falling fortunes in the city. The Kahn & Engelmann of the title is the clothing store owned by the narrator’s uncle and father, a focal point of the book as he introduces letters between the two men, bickering over business matters until events take a dramatic turn.
This main body of the book is suffused with Jewish religious and cultural life, in the countryside and the city, explaining rituals and traditions – with a helpful glossary of Yiddish, Hebrew and German terms that I only discovered once I’d gobbled up most of the book. Despite the many arguments, family life seems warm and cosy like a sepia photograph. In fact, the narrator occasionally fetches photos and documents and living relatives out of his box of memories, and we know that at least some of the family will survive the Holocaust. He skips to and fro in time, an old man struggling to recall events, making his account even more likeable and quasi-authentic, if not easier to follow.
And then comes the Anschluss, and from here we follow Peter Engelmann into exile, his farce of a marriage and his eventual move to Israel. All this would be fairly standard stuff, though, a tale worth telling but one told a good few times before. That is, without Eichner’s (or Engelmann’s) perspective as a Germanist. The book is sprinkled with wonderfully anachronistic references to German literature, from Middle High German to the Classics to Modernism. His grandparents couldn’t possibly have read Kafka, we are told, as Kafka was only six when they moved to Vienna, but a parable from The Trial applies perfectly to their situation. And yet Engelmann makes a conscious decision to turn away from literature and work with his hands in Israel.
The story comes full circle from one loving description of a Jewish wedding to another. While I got a sense that Eichner was keen to explain Judaism to his original German readership, the narrator is not strictly a religious man. His allegiance is to the culture he grew up in above all else, with his love of German literature somehow surviving in the end. He comments:
A representative from Lodz goes through a shtetl –
There aren’t any shtetls anymore, where the Jews were crammed into a maze of tiny streets, studied the Talmud, had children and lived on thin air. Burnt to the ground, torn down, expropriated, the owners having died of thirst in cattle cars, or been murdered in Auschwitz, in Belsen, in Chelmno, in Majdanek, in Sobibor, in Treblinka – is it still possible to tell a Jewish joke that was originally in German? Maybe so.
The book itself is a beautiful piece of work. Canadian publishers Biblioasis have done what’s often considered unthinkable and credited the translator, Jean M. Snook, on the front cover – hats off for that. But hats off too to the seemingly faultless translation, with not a single stumbling block, glaring misunderstanding or unwitting germanism. It seems that the translator worked in close collaboration with the late author, and that has paid off marvellously.
I’d say this is a book that works well on two levels – as a family saga with the odd long moment, and as a delightful and thought-provoking read for lovers of German literature. Most of us will have asked ourselves the question Engelmann torments himself with – how can I love the books of a culture that killed so many? Here is one answer.