Journey through a Tragicomic Century: The Absurd Life of Hasso Grabner by Francis Nenik

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Translated by Katy Derbyshire

Reviewed by Eleanor Updegraff

This September sees the launch of V&Q Books, a brand-new publishing imprint with the mission of translating ‘remarkable writing from Germany’ for an English-speaking readership. Translator and now publisher Katy Derbyshire unveils her new Berlin-based press with three books, all vastly different and offering an intriguing taste of what we can expect to see from V&Q in the future. When it comes to ‘remarkable’, Journey through a Tragicomic Century: The Absurd Life of Hasso Grabner certainly hits the nail on the head: it would be fair to say I’ve never read another book quite like it.

In this slender biography, which strays into the territory of fiction, memoir and quite possibly auto-fiction as well, author Francis Nenik charts the life of Hasso Grabner, a forgotten German writer who, it turns out, had a really quite astonishing life. Born in 1911, Grabner lived through the First World War, became a member of the underground Communist resistance, survived a spell in Buchenwald concentration camp and was conscripted to the Wehrmacht to fight in Greece and Albania as a member of a penal battalion; following the war he became one of the founding figures of industry in the GDR, managing steelworks and large manufacturing complexes, but his penchant for not following the party line saw him getting into hot water with the Stasi on more than one occasion. Eventually forging a career as a writer of novels, short stories, plays and essays, he was closely scrutinised for his work and political views, put under surveillance and banned from publication, finally dying in poverty and oblivion in 1976.

Hasso Grabner

An extraordinary, not to say absurd life, but what really makes this book remarkable is the manner in which Nenik chooses to tell his subject’s story. Divided into short, mainly paragraph-length sections, Grabner’s life is presented to us like clips from a movie; each section in turn comprised of long, often convoluted sentences that contain a rush of information in the form of names, places, facts and figures. The overall style of writing is highly unusual for a biography: informal – downright chatty, even – with a smattering of ever so slightly foul language and an abiding sense of irreverence. Nenik writes as you would imagine someone might talk, leaning across the table to relate in a breathless rush the unbelievable story he has just discovered.

It can be easy to get caught up in the speed and flow of Nenik’s writing – I often found myself racing through several sections only to have to go back and take in the facts more slowly. Far from being a stylistic flaw, this is an inspired reflection of the way in which life tends to happen before you’ve realised. Particularly in times of war or political upheaval – of which Grabner experienced plenty – events can take place in whirlwind fashion, and it is often only much later on that their true significance becomes apparent. Writing with the benefit of hindsight, it would be difficult for Nenik to avoid presenting Grabner’s life within the frame of how we view history now (and, of course, impossible to control how his individual readers see it), but his clever use of language does much to mitigate this: it transports a sense of what it would have been like to be there on the ground, caught up in the confusion of it all, whilst simultaneously allowing us to read Grabner’s life in the context of history. A truly unique way of doing things, it mixes the personal with the global in an incredibly effective manner.

As Nenik makes abundantly clear, the twentieth century was a confusing period in which to be alive – especially in East Germany – but translator Katy Derbyshire is careful not to leave the reader in the lurch. The English version contains an informative notes section, which provides much-needed context on the few untranslated German words (the Nazi term Untermensch, for example) and the many historical events and personalities to which the book refers. Careful not to disturb the flow, none of these are signposted within the main text, but can be looked up at the reader’s discretion.

Another more unusual aspect of Nenik’s biography is the choice he makes to include his own voice as biographer. The first-person narrator is introduced neither at the beginning of Grabner’s story nor at the end, but somewhere along the way – though the present-tense, loquacious manner in which events are related have long since hinted at a very personable biographer – and Nenik gives himself the chance to take centre stage in the concluding chapter, describing how he came to write about his subject in the first place. Although an illuminating addition to the book, it does have the slightly unwarranted effect of detracting from Grabner’s own story if read immediately afterwards; a better way of approaching it might be to save this chapter for later on.

Equally important as the author’s voice is that of the translator, and in Journey through a Tragicomic Century Katy Derbyshire truly shines. The effectiveness of this book lies mainly in its use of language – Nenik writes in a rather gossipy tone, with lashings of ironic wit – and Derbyshire has captured this tenor perfectly in English. What’s more, the text contains generous helpings of puns and jokes, which despite their brevity can be some of the most difficult constructions to translate. Again, Derbyshire has excelled here, creating a text that is often laugh-out-loud funny and contains wordplay which readers might never guess had been translated: in one concise example, Grabner ‘jacks through all trades’ after the war. Some sections will be particularly entertaining for a certain ilk of British reader – ‘the Lord moves in ways as mysterious as the British Foreign Office,’ Nenik declares solemnly at one point – while others are more universally amusing, aided by the way in which the author highlights their absurdity.

It might all sound like a laugh a minute, but don’t be fooled: understatement is the key to this novel. ‘These are, if you like, shitty times’ is a classic Nenik-esque statement, and yet the merry way in which he appears to skip past atrocities – the intelligence tests Grabner and his comrades are subjected to in Buchenwald, fatally hard labour, hand-to-hand combat in the mountains of south-eastern Europe, political machinations that cost thousands their lives – only serves to underline their severity. Told this way, Grabner’s life is the very definition of tragicomic, and the reader will often be left not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

It is very easy to say that something is ‘stranger than fiction’. We understand the meaning inherent in this shorthand, but rarely do we stop to explore it in greater detail. Nenik, unusually and brilliantly, has decided to do just this, laying out a life story that reads like a fictional farce and is all the more tragic because in fact it wasn’t. A rip-roaring biography of one man and several parts of European history, Journey through a Tragicomic Century is a dazzling work of literature, a startling combination of genres that is both slightly baffling and a sheer delight to read. If this is even the smallest indication of the ‘remarkable writing from Germany’ that Derbyshire has to offer us, it’s high time to start clearing some space on the shelves.

Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy of Journey through a Tragicomic Century: The Absurd Life of Hasso Grabner.

Eleanor is a freelance writer, translator and proofreader/copy-editor, living in Austria. She blogs at The Monthly Booking.

Francis Nenik, Journey through a Tragicomic Century: The Absurd Life of Hasso Grabner (V&Q Books, 2020). 978-3863912574, 192pp., flapped paperback.

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