If Dmitri Shostakovich’s tenth symphony, the first to be performed after the death of Stalin, was a statement of his endurance over totalitarian adversity, then the publication of Ernest Haffner’s Blood Brothers (translated by Michael Hofmann) is in its own way symbolic of Haffner’s own endurance over totalitarian adversity.
An important work of German literature that was banned by the Nazis a year after its publication, in addition to being considered a victory of endurance, Blood Brothers should also be recognised as a testament to the resilient spirit of art and culture to survive. While it may be gnawed away at by tyrants and despite the inherent scars that tell a tale of persecution and suffering, art and culture has a remarkable survival instinct.
The snapshot of Germany Haffner captured in words was a moment in history: of the still youthful yet highly difficult days of the century through a cast of young and adolescent gang of eight Blood Brothers bound together by a code of loyalty and family. Haffner’s only novel portrays the impoverishment of those whom history often forgets, and has a tendency to dismiss into the shadows that are cast by iconic figures and great events. Here we get a look into the shadows that were cast by Hitler’s rise to power.
By the conclusion of Blood Brothers’ opening chapter, Haffner has presented a dark and grim impression: the beginnings of a story of tragedy and a cruel world robbed of colour, where the images flashing across our mind are perhaps in colour, but the emotional stimuli is provokes us to envisage monochrome shades.
If Haffner were a painter, then you’d expect to see him at his canvas painting with short sharp strokes. The cold and long days and nights that are the stage upon which his story plays out don’t deter him from stepping forward with a brisk pace while depicting a world of desperation inflicted upon his protagonists. This cast of characters are almost in stasis: fighting to survive and with no real direction, they are heading nowhere. From the outset there is an impenetrable sense of uncertainty, and Haffner’s short sharp strokes offset by the lengthy feeling of time contrasts with a genuine sense of power.
An additional characteristic of the prose is the presentation of the voices of the individual characters, in which there is a disassociation that derives from silent thoughts or talking out loud to oneself; asking, are they observer or participant? What Haffner captures is the consciousness of his characters, and so stark is this consciousness that we can hear the voices swirling around inside their minds. So we have the voice of the writer and we have the thoughts of the characters; the observations of the writer and the observations of the characters. As in the second movement of Beethoven’s piano concerto number four, just as the piano and strings appear to engage in a conversation with one another, so too does Blood Brothers’ writer and its cast of characters engage in a structurally layered dialogue.
But is it the voices of the characters or is it the writer changing his personality from an observer to an active participant of the story? Haffner’s style poses this exact question, and the way in which he takes on a personality, one is therein forced while reading the book to interrogate the role of the writer and the way in which he inserts himself into it. Does Haffner maintain control or remain an observer by handing over control to the characters?
Invariably one cannot help but contemplate the dynamic of the structure and how this literary work has been put together. In fact, there’s almost an intrusive style to the way in which he cuts out dialogue to instead tell us what words transpire between his characters as opposed to letting us eavesdrop on their conversation. This could be perceived as an act in which he deprives them of their independence by making them dependent on him in order for the story to exist, or rather, for their story to be told.
Nonetheless, the work ensures that a point of view of a time in history is preserved, and while in one instance it’s a point of view of the writer, it’s not exclusively so, as the writer and the world become one. Does this then mean that Haffner is saying that the world needs the writer? It forces one to acknowledge such intriguing avenues of thought, which emerge from a work with origins in the dark shadows of the past.
One of the central contemplations within the work is that freedom is the vital and nourishing ingredient for these Blood Brothers. It’s that desire to be free and find like-minded individuals, a need for a family away from family, that permeates the text. Blood Brothers is a powerful tale of freedom, and how it nourishes the soul even as the harsh realities gnaw away at it. But the way in which Haffner allows this to impact our sensibilities is to create a sub-conscious level where one feels the words as they are read: stimulating our emotional impulses, empathy and human yearning for freedom, friendship, loyalty and individuality.
Blood Brothers is to all intent and purposes a social commentary of someone venting and expressing their frustrations and observations of a world and mixing them with a novel. It infers that first came the world and then the novel. In fact the novel is a vessel: a time capsule which captured Haffner’s present. A journalist and social worker, he must have been an individual deeply connected to his world, and just as art can be a cathartic experience, perhaps then writing Blood Brothers was for this social worker, journalist and author a means of catharsis. It then should be approached as one man’s attempt to create a sense of peace with his world through art.
Blood Brothers depicts a grim reality, and it casts not so much a light on the time, but rather extinguishes the light cast upon the early 20th century by showing how it went from one grim shade to another, and onto another. As much as the setting is Berlin 1933, perhaps in some ways Haffner’s text, read in 2015, makes one look retrospectively at that century to see the many monochrome shades and the grim realities of war and tension. Therein the text has changed with time, and compared to what it said in the year before it was cast into the shadows by tyrants, it’s voice has been ever evolving.
One of the great privileges of encountering Blood Brothers is that it evolves with the passage of time to look to its then present and future; it’s now past. But one cannot help but consider how the fate of Haffner during WWII remains unknown. His only novel speaks of the value of art and creativity as a force that has given immortality to a man whose fate remains a mystery, lost in time.
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