Monday, 2 September 2013

Ernst Haffner: Blutsbrüder

Ernst Haffner's Blutsbrüder is a rediscovered novel first published in 1932, and has just come out to a flurry of excitement. It centres around a gang of young men on the margins of society, the Blood Brothers. They sleep in cheap dives or sheds or rent beds by the night and spend winter days in Berlin’s heated waiting rooms and bars around Alexanderplatz, mixing with pimps, prostitutes, thieves, buskers and beggars. The boys – petty criminals, runaways and kids down on their luck – do odd jobs for work, turn tricks or try their hands at occasional blackmail. 

We follow them through ordinary days and great adventures, an escape from a correction home and an excruciating trip on the underside of a train, nights of drinking and debauchery, an arrest and a fight, virginity lost and gonorrhoea gained, days of boredom and poverty. Haffner sketches out some great characters, including the charismatic leader Johnny (what else could a 1930s gang-leader be called?) and the more sensitive correction-home boys Ludwig and Willi. These two eventually break away from the gang and try to go back to the straight and narrow once they find out how the Blood Brothers' new-found wealth has been gained.

That's all I'll give away because the novel is very much plot-led. But what it also does is give us an authentic-feeling picture of life on the underbelly of Berlin society just before Hitler came to power. Little is known about him, but Haffner was a social worker and journalist and was presumably in contact with boys like his heroes. Although he makes no direct reference to politics, his novel was banned and burned by the Nazis. I assume it was the grimy portrayal of "degenerates" as human beings that rankled with them. 

Blutsbrüder will ring a few bells with readers. Döblin's more ambitious Berlin Alexanderplatz is set in the same streets and dive bars, and there's an excursion to Isherwood's gay haunts, portrayed here as decadent (ever the social worker, Haffner never quite ditches morality). The novel also has something in common with Fallada's Alone in Berlin, as the publishers have been quick to point out, in that it too has an almost documentary feel to it – but I found it a more exciting read. Lots of local detail, including poor Jewish life in the Scheunenviertel, lots of open questions – what on earth happened to these boys under the Nazis: did they join the SA, get send to concentration camps or merely end up as cannon fodder?

It's not great literature but the novel appears to capture a moment in time and draws the reader in to its stories and characters. The new edition is beautifully illustrated with photos of 1920s and 30s Berlin. Recommended.

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