Category: Fiction

Francis Nenik
Reise durch ein tragikomisches Jahrhundert. Das irrwitzige Leben des Hasso Grabner.
[Journey through a Tragicomic Century. The Absurd Life of Hasso Grabner]

Novel

A Talented Egotist

The writer Francis Nenik is one of the great unknowns of German-language literature. He writes under a pseudonym; all we know about him is that he was born in 1981, grew up near Leipzig and works in agriculture alongside his writing. If any of that is true, that is.

Yet the story Nenik has unearthed for his new book is equally incredible – ironically enough, he discovered it while researching for an essay on forgotten writers. Flicking through an East German literary encyclopaedia, Nenik came across Hasso Grabner. A man whose name is barely remembered these days, and whose life was previously untold, even though it would have provided material for more than one novel. And so Nenik set to work. He does not relate his hero’s biography in extended sentimental episodes. Instead, Nenik uses a concise and elegant style that by no means conceals the author’s brilliance. The narrative leaps and bounds are a good match for the exuberance with which Hasso Grabner himself swept through the historical twists and turns of the twentieth century.

Grabner was, as Nenik puts it, ‘the chronicler of a grotesque by the name of history’ and was always on the spot where that grotesque was currently being fabricated. Born in Leipzig in 1911, Grabner grew up in various foster families and sought contact to socialist and communist organizations at an early point. Somewhat of a playful rascal, he later claimed to East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party that he took part in the armed struggle for the good of the workers from 1918 on, as far as his young age allowed. Grabner was a product of a complicated era – a Jack-the-lad, agitator and victim rolled into one; a savvy thinker and a rogue.

The National Socialists lock him up in a penitentiary in May 1935 for his political activities. When Grabner leaves prison in August 1938, the Gestapo are waiting at the gate to take him to Buchenwald concentration camp. There, however, having trained as a bookseller, he manages to get himself a job in the camp library. A capsule of calm in the midst of horror. And a strong image for how Grabner navigates his way through the deathly threats of the times. ‘Grabner,’ Nenik writes perceptively, ‘was too small to be noticed, and too big to be dragged along by history.’

That is particularly clear in the second part of the book, which deals with Grabner’s life and work in the GDR. He begins to write novels and is accepted into the writers’ association. Yet everywhere Grabner turns, East Germany’s ideologically cemented die-hards mistrust him; one report describes him as a talented egotist. Whenever they try to punish him for his free-thinking ways, he lands all the more on his feet. He spent two months of 1946 running a state radio station; he headed the Schwarze Pumpe coal and gas combine and was a founding figure in the Free German Youth organization. Grabner could never simply toe the party line. And yet, facing any party committee castigating his behaviour, he could always rub their noses in his past as a resistance fighter.

Grabner was under Stasi surveillance from 1961 onwards. He wrote a number of novels, was banned from publishing for various periods, and eventually died in 1976. Francis Nenik telling his story in such an entertaining way – without overlooking the tragic elements of his biography – is a posthumous triumph.
Christoph Schröder

By Christoph Schröder, 15.01.2019

​Christoph Schroeder is a freelance writer (Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Tagesspiegel, Die Zeit) based in Frankfurt am Main and is a lecturer in literary criticism at the university there.

Translated by Katy Derbyshire