This book landed on my doorstep completely unannounced, and made me realise that I had missed World Book Night. And although I would probably not have picked this for myself, I read it and liked it. Sometimes you really have to be nudged into the right direction.
I know Axel Hacke from his hugely popular collections of misheard song lyrics, but for Deutschlandalbum, he attempted something a bit more serious: to create a collage of all things German, of ordinary people’s stories, poems, photographs and just the right amount of ridicule for what we all take to be “typically German” (Yes, this means over-the-top recycling). Given that this is a more than ambitious project, he manages well, with more sadness than expected, and quite a few bits of razor-sharp insight. Starting from his own experience as the son of a withdrawn WWII veteran (and I suppose this has a complete different connotation for the intended German audience), he describes what most people feel for their country, which is more shame than pride, and more private comfort than big patriotism. Germans, he notes, are prone to talking themselves and their country down, which is no wonder after having caused (again, as a country, but in the case of Hacke’s own father and his generation, personally as well) so much pain and devastation in the past. It’s popular to regard all things German with suspicion, while still being quite happy with your own circumstances. I have always seen it that way – while I love my hometown, I feel I have no right to speak for the whole country, and although I’m doing my best to raise my children as Germans, I wouldn’t dream of feeling even the tiniest bit of national pride. It’s a strange situation, but it’s hardwired into the brains of most Germans. Later on in the book, Hacke uses the acute sense of guilt his father’s generation felt after the war to explain the famed German sense of order: Terrified of what they had done to others, and being forced to rebuild their country after their own acts of destruction, the survivors of WWII clung to the sense of order as their only means of controlling the fear they all felt. Only systematic ordering would stop them from feeling helpless and afraid of what they were capable of. There, in just a few pages, Hacke sums up an entire nation’s psyche.
There’s more to Germany than the war, and even the Berlin wall. In Deutschlandalbum, we meet the winners and losers of the recent past. There’s the high-flying banker who lost it all and can’t afford to pay for his lunch, the divorced woman who ended up in a hostel, the poor drunk guy who eventually disappears, unnoticed by his drinking pals. But there’s also the shrewd Saxon entrepreneur who manages to adapt to the ever-changing markets, and the butcher who believes in his vision of ethically sourced meat for everyone. Although most of the people Axel Hacke meets have heartbreakingly sad stories to tell, most of them retain a sense of pride and resilience. For me, it’s the stories of East Germans that move me most, because they are familiar. But even the tramps and the drunks are portrayed as just as worthy, and Hacke shows his incredible talent for showing a person’s humanity. And he’s funny, of course. There is a chapter about the German man and the sea, which is absolutely hysterical and probably applies to all men everywhere. And the recycling of course, which, to be fair, hardly needs the dramatisation.
Overall, Hacke achieves what he set out to do: To tell the stories that make up a country. I don’t feel any closer to patriotism, but I’m once again reminded that everybody has a story to tell, and there is never just black and white and clear characterisation.
(Enough with the German books now. I’ll read something in English next.)