Ernst Haffner's lost 1932 novel Jugend auf der Landstrasse Berlin was rediscovered and republished last year as Blutsbrüder to great acclaim. Haffner was a social worker and journalist, and his intimate knowledge of youth gangs combined with his gritty realism was well-received. The book has been translated into English by one of our best translators - Michael Hofmann - and will be released in the United States in eary 2015. The good folks at Other Press were kind enough to send me an advance copy to review.
Blood Brothers is a Berlin novel. But this is not the glittering Weimar Berlin of the Berlin Diaries, but rather the seamy underbelly of the city. Haffner takes us into the soup kitchens, the police holding cells, the back alleys where money is exchanged for sex or punishment is meted out. This is closer to the proletarian milieu of Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz. And this is the world of the "Blood Brothers" - the gang of teenaged boys who have banded together in order to survive. The gang often has no idea where the next meal will come from, or where they can find a place to sleep. The important thing is that they have to stay together at all cost.
The absolute loyalty to the gang is completely understandable, for the boys have been forgotten by society, thrown out like yesterday's rubbish. For the most part, they don't seem to have any family to fall back on; the gang is their family. One character, Fred, does indeed have a father who finds him and drags him back home, locking him in his bedroom. But Fred wants nothing more than to be back together with his Blood Brothers, and uses a crowbar to break out. Freedom is prized above all else - but it is freedom to be together with the gang. The boys live in fear that the authorities will detain them and send them back to the penitentiary - ironically called "welfare schools". One boy - Willi - is indeed sent back to reform school in southern Germany. Willi manages to escape but has no money to get back to Berlin and his Blood Brothers. In a very harrowing scene he holds on to the the under-carriage of an express train from Cologne to Berlin and somehow manages to survive and have his ecstatic reunion with the Blood Brothers.
For the most part, the narrator of Blood Brothers functions as a camera, pointing the lens dispassionately at the squalor. But occasionally Haffner's anger at the social injustice breaks through, such as this rant about the juvenile justice system in the Weimar Republic.
"But the children, committed to the institution whose function is to guard them against turpitude, only learn from their comrades how to make money in the easiest ways.How you make skeleton keys out of wire...how you crack a safe...how you break and enter a window without smashing glass...how and where you sell your body in Berlin...And how you escape from the institution and make use of the things you learned, or starve to death."
I haven't read the original Blutsbrüder so it is difficult for me to comment on Hofmann's translation. But I found his use of archaic American slang somewhat jarring. How many Americans know what a "borstal" is? "Reform school" would work just as well for Erziehungsanstalt. Other antiquated slang like "skiv", "dosser", "kip" appear throughout.
Not much is known about Ernst Haffner. Blood Brothers was his only book, and it was banned by the Nazis in 1933, a year after publication. In 1938 he was summoned to appear before Goebbel's Reichsschrifttumskammer and all traces vanish after that. It is unclear why the Nazis found fault with Haffner and his novel. There is nothing about the political turmoil in the late Weimar Republic in Blood Brothers. The narrator makes some cynical remarks about how "all citizens are equal" under the Weimar constitution, but otherwise tnere is no overt political commentary. This also gives the book a timeless quality. And, if we are honest, how much has changed over the years? We see the same discarded children again, with different names, fifty years later in Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, and then in Leipzig in Clemens Meyer's terrific Als wir träumten and again in Baltimore in the incomparable HBO series The Wire. Nothing has changed at all, except today's blood brothers have semi-automatic weapons.