I first came across Johann Rukelie Trollmann when translating the new exhibition at the German Resistance Memorial Center. He's a fascinating historical figure who stood up to the Nazis in his own way. Stephanie Bart's novel Deutscher Meister (her first with a major publisher) tells part of his story, wisely restricted to the time between March and July of 1933.
The Nazis have come to power and are also asserting their presence in the sporting world, with boxing being made compulsory in schools. The story begins with the expulsion of all Jewish boxers, functionaries and managers from the boxing association, but Trollmann’s case is less clear-cut. Labelled “Gipsy” by the press, he comes from a Sinto family and has suffered discrimination in his career for years. At this point, however, Nazi ideologists have not yet decided whether to classify the Sinti as “Aryan” or not, and so Trollmann is reluctantly allowed to continue fighting.
Using real-life characters in fiction is tricky – it can feel disrespectful when a writer assumes too much about what's going on inside their heads. Instead of focusing entirely on Trollmann, Bart also shows us a host of different characters around him, which I think dodges this dilemma rather cleverly. So as well as the individual story of how Trollmann was cheated out of the German Champion title in the light-heavyweight category and deliberately lost his last fight, we get a broader picture of Berlin in the summer after Hitler came to power.
These characters are one of the novel's key strengths, for me. They come from all corners of society - boxing functionaries, SA brawlers, bakery sales girls, society gentlemen, workers and schoolgirls. And we see them either settling into life under the Nazis or beginning to suffer. We watch Berlin turning from an open, bohemian city to a place of danger for anyone who doesn't fit into the Nazis' bizarre understanding of how Germans ought to be. There's a lot of dialogue, making the most of the Berliners' sharp tongues but not using too much dialect – another thing that often backfires. And there's humour, which took me a while to pick up on but once it hit home I was chortling my way through until the laughter stuck in my throat, especially at the descriptions of historical events like the book-burning and the mass murders of Nazi opponents in Köpenick.
The other stand-out strength is the physical descriptions. It’s not easy to write about boxing without slowing the pace, but Bart uses all sorts of tricks to get around that problem. She varies sentence length, makes subtle use of metaphor (one round of boxing is compared to Trollmann playing a drum kit, for instance), sometimes dispenses with verbs to add speed, and generally shows a great deal of skill. So much so that I read the 100 pages devoted to the main fight in a single, breath-taking sitting.
Although it may not be breaking any literary moulds, Deutscher Meister is an ambitious novel, and while I found I had to overcome a slow start I got hooked pretty quickly. I hope a British publisher will pick it up – New Books in German recommends! That would even reconcile me momentarily to the British obsession with the Nazis, because the book is less about Nazis as such and more about those whose lives they harmed, those who stood up to them in small ways. You can read a sample translation by Imogen Taylor at the NBG link just above here. I think you should.