Something I’ve noticed about the year’s reading so far is that I’ve picked up several books that have been lying around unread for years. In some cases, that’s been a big success; in others, I probably should have left well alone. Today’s choice continues this trend, with a book I bought after enjoying the writer’s first short work translated into English. In fact, I just checked online as I knew I bought it via the Book Depository – it turns out that I placed the order back in December 2011…
Almost a decade on the shelves, then. Let’s see if it was worth the wait, or whether this was another book I should have simply passed on years ago 😉
Friedrich Christian Delius is probably best-known in English for the Peirene Press edition of his novella Bildnis der Mutter als Junge Frau (Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman), translated by Jamie Bulloch), one of my favourite Peirene books. On finishing that, I decided to try more of his work, hopefully opting for both quality and quantity in the form of a collection of three novels, Deutscher Herbst (German Autumn). The three are connected by their handling of pivotal events that took place back in the northern autumn of 1977, when the terrorist Red Army Faction (RAF) led a campaign that threatened to destabilise West German society and government.
The three novels collected here, written years after the event, reflect real-life events, and the first, Ein Held der inneren Sicherheit (A Hero of Internal Security) was inspired by the kidnapping of a high-profile industrialist, although all names are changed in this fictional account. On the first page we learn about the abduction of Alfred Büttinger, President of the Verband der Menschenführer (‘Association of People Leaders’), a high-level organisation promoting the interests of the country’s business sector. The kidnapping sends a shockwave through the country, dominating news reports, and the police seem to have no idea where he’s been taken.
Meanwhile back at the organisation’s headquarters, life somehow has to go on, even in the case of Roland Diehl. As the self-proclaimed Chefdenker (‘Chief Thinker’), he provides the words behind Büttinger’s calming voice, writing the speeches the older man holds at trade fairs and universities. Diehl has risen quickly in the world, mainly by clinging to Büttinger’s coattails, but the kidnapping forces him to think about life without his boss and mentor, and the stress this causes begins to take its toll.
Much of the novel, then, is spent on gradually building up a character study of Diehl. He spends his working life holed up in his office writing the speeches Büttinger uses to push for more market freedom, but with the sudden disappearance of his boss, he begins to wonder why he’s writing them. Usually a confident go-getter, he starts to doubt his way of life:
Gedankenstress Kopfstress Nichtspassiertstress, bis jetzt hatte Diehl nie an seiner Stress-Stabilität zu zweifeln gehabt, auch bei Flucht oder Angriff, bei Notbremsung Überholbeschleunigung triumphierte stets der kühle Kopf. Aber was jetzt mit ihm vorging, was ihn immer wieder stundenweise aus der Bahn warf, war das Stress?
p.106 (Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 2009)
Thought-stress mental-stress nothing-happened-stress, up to now Diehl had never had reason to doubt his ability to cope with stress, in times of either fight or flight, when emergency braking accelerating to overtake he always kept a cool head. But what was going on with him now, what repeatedly threw him off-track for hours at a time, was this stress? ***
He suspects the board of planning to cut him loose, and the resulting stress leads to arguments with his girlfriend, Tina, immense trouble sleeping and, when he does nod off, terrible dreams. As the novel progresses, we also learn about his youth and career, and find out that despite the aura of a winner he attempts to exude, he’s always fallen short before the summit in all his endeavours, leaving him with a bit of an inferiority complex.
Gradually, the scope expands, and Ein Held der inneren Sicherheit reveals itself to be a book not just about the success-hungry Diehl, but concerning wider German society. Delius provides us with glimpses of a market economy where business interests are seen to be indistinguishable from those of the nation, even if a young, increasingly rowdy, opposition isn’t happy with the situation. The setting inside the Verband allows us useful insights into the lengths the organisation goes to in order to obfuscate the truth and frustrate their opponents, ensuring their message is the one that gets across.
For all the talk of progress, though, it’s hinted that in post-war Germany things have mostly stayed the same. As Diehl reflects on Büttinger, the grand old man of the business sector, we learn more about his not-so-secret Nazi past. Thirty years on, the war is far from forgotten, yet incredibly, many of those who supported dubious activities appear to have been forgiven:
…daß die Büttingers eine demokratisch verfaßte Gesellschaft genauso unbefangen repräsentiert haben. Daß sie unter veränderter Verfassung geblieben sind, wo sie waren, nämlich oben, daß sie Zeugen einer Kontinuität sind, die nicht sein dürfte wenn der Faschismus als das Verbrechen bewußt wäre, das er war. (p.144)
…that the Büttingers had represented a democratic society with just as much confidence and composure. That they had remained where they were under an altered constitution, namely at the top, that they were proof of a continuity that shouldn’t really exist if fascism had been acknowledged as the crime that it was. ***
The current leaders of industry are those who cut their teeth during wartime, and in his choice of the organisation’s title, Delius has a rather unsubtle jab at these survivors. You see, when hearing the word Führer, it would be almost impossible for any German speaker to avoid the obvious reference to another ‘leader’ of men…
Ein Held der inneren Sicherheit is an interesting work that takes an unusual approach to examining the events of the German Autumn by focusing on one man on the periphery of events. A notable feature of the text is Diehl’s tendency to daydream, with these fantasies not always easy to pick up immediately. After one episode, in which Diehl goes on a rampage with a forklift during a factory visit, I wondered for ages why nobody was mentioning the incident before realising it must have all been in his head!
The confused feel is enhanced by the use of language, with the writer often resorting to stream-of-consciousness tangents and lists of words breaking up sentences, reflecting Diehl’s confused state of mind. There are also hints of Diehl’s worries in the title itself. While it can refer to internal or domestic security, there’s also a double meaning, where the ‘innere Sicherheit’ can also refer to ‘self-confidence’. Yes, at times Diehl feels bullet-proof, a king amongst men, but at others that sense of security is sadly lacking.
If I’m honest, the book seems slightly dated forty years on. On its release in 1981, the RAF events would still have been fresh in people’s minds, and the idea of the silent control exerted by business interests might perhaps have had more impact back then (it’s certainly old news today…). The book also reflects the norms of the time, particularly in Diehl’s attitude towards women, and I suspect a contemporary work would handle this side of the story very differently.
Ein Held der inneren Sicherheit isn’t really what I expected, and it’s not a book I expect to ever make it into English. However, it still makes for an intriguing look back at a pivotal moment of modern German history, so if that’s something that interests you (and you can read German), you might want to check it out. At some point, I’ll probably take a look at the other two novels included in my edition, Mogadischu Fensterplatz (Mogadishu Window Seat) and Himmelfahrt eines Staatsfeindes (An Enemy of the State Ascends to Heaven), and I wonder if those will reveal more of the actual terrorist acts, or if they again reflect the feelings of the people living through the time. Rest assured that I’ll be sure to let you know when I get around to trying them 😉