What's In A Title

Berliner Novelle, by Peter Hacks

Let me begin with a not-so-well-known German poem/song that will, as of today, always be part of my experience in reading Peter Hacks. The following text was written by Hoffmann von Fallersleben (what a name,eh). For those who don’t know, he’s the dude that gave the world the lyrics of the anthem chestnut-full-of-fun that Haydn put to music and the Nazis ruined: “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”.

(A short English summary of this poem follows.)

Der Frühling kommt hernieder,
der Winter muß entfliehen,
und Frühling wird es wieder
sogar auch in Berlin.

Im milden sonnigen Wetter
kann man spazieren gehen,
und Kräuter und grüne Blätter
im Tiergarten wieder sehen.

Den Gruß des Frühlings singen
die Vögel in jede Brust,
und alle Welt muß ringen
nach Freude und Frühlingslust.

Der Eckensteher Nante
blieb lebensmüde und matt;
weil er das Leben kannte,
hatte er es herzlich satt.

Er geht zum Tiergarten traurig,
er geht und hängt sich auf.
Im Tiergarten – o wie schaurig!
Beschließt er den Lebenslauf.

Das gibt ein eigenes Rauschen
im grünen Busch am Bach,
und Leute, die da lauschen,
die gehen dem Geräusche nach.

Gendarmen und Polizisten,
mit Rettungsmedaillen geziert,
und viele gute Christen,
die kommen herbei spaziert.

Sie schneiden ihn ab vom Baume,
sie reiben ihn, bis er lebt,
und Nante wie im Träume
denkt, daß er im Himmel schwebt.

Allmächtiger, hab Erbarmen!”
So spricht er, “was seh´ ich hier?
Im Himmel auch Gendarmen?
Nun ist es aus mit mir!”
(Er stirbt)

The poem is about a dude named “Der Eckensteher Nante”. (This is hard to translate; means something like “The Corner Standing Nante”; but it is also used to describe a certain trait in some Berliners.) Obviously, Nante is not a man of much success. In fact, he’s had it with life, politics and, perhaps, Berlin. So he goes to a park and commits suicide by hanging himself. Unfortunately, probably like the compulsive and non-creative life in Berlin today, he doesn’t have much success at that either. After some people, including the police, save him, he awakes in the soothing arms of what he thinks is heaven and says: “Oh my, there are Gendarmes in heaven? Well, that’s it for me!” Then he really dies.

Yeah, that pretty much summarizes my experience in Germany, as well, although I haven’t quite made it to the hanging part (yet). And if you’re asking what this poem has to do with Peter Hacks’ play…? All I can say thus far is that it’s in the title. Fallersleben’s poem is also called “Berliner Novelle”. Am I the only one out there that smells literary conspiracy here? Two works about the misery of being German and I am alone in seeing the connection? What? You don’t think these pieces are connected? Nor are they worth any kind of (worstwriter) scrutiny? OK. You win. I’ll just have another Hefeweizen while reading a play.

Here’s a Tommi summary of Berliner Novelle (the play) in English. Keep in mind this play is only about sixty pages long. Also, Eulenspiegel Verlag and/or Peter Hacks calls it a Dramolett.

A one-legged American professor, Dr. Andrew Di Verona, is visiting East Germany during “the advanced 90s of the twentieth century”. Dr. Dietmar Schiller, a former and now de-frocked East German university professor and his family are providing the American with a bed for the night because the organizers of the event that brought the American forgot to consider that he couldn’t make it up the stairs of the town’s only available hotel. All other hotels in town are booked because of another event. (You would think that East Berlin, after the fall of the wall, was a busy place, eh?) Those participating in this ad hoc hosting situation include Schiller’s family, which consist of his wife, Irmtraut (what a name, eh), and his daughter Herta – who is “an ugly girl of 2,10 meters”. Mr. Jamal, “a businessman”, rounds up the cast of characters.

The play has some family squabbling, the presentation of anger management issues by Schiller’s socially depraved wife, and a sexual turn of events that would make anyone studying the characteristics of Euro incest cringe. (The late part of the first decade of the 21sts century would tell any theatre manager in Austria NOT to touch this play!) What the play is trying to portray, though – the dysfunction caused by capitalism induction – doesn’t get lost in the odd twist of events that Hacks writes about. The reality that faced (faces?) the former Eastern States of Germany is picturesque in this play – if you can stand a stage with an ugly girl of 2,10 meters that likes to romp regularly with her dad.

Getting back to the poem connection.

One thing that got me thinking while reading Peter Hacks’ play had to do with Fallersleben’s poem. As mentioned, Hacks’ play is about dysfunction – which includes Berlin. In a different kind of way, Fallersleben’s poem is about the same thing – in Berlin. The thing is, good authors are tricky. It’s no wonder that Hacks might have had something else in mind – not with his play but with the title. And I think I might have seen through his cleaver disguise.

Here’s my run-away theory about this play and poem. And please, take this with a grain of salt while sleeping in your salt bed…

The title “Berliner Novelle” is something like a code. It is a code known only to a few writers of truth. The reason it is code is because, even if we are told that the Stasi is gone, some writers just cannot get tyrannical conditioning out of their system. Since I’m not a very smart writer – like Hacks – all I propose at this point about the codification of “Berliner Novelle” is that Berlin = dysfunction and Novelle = short. Simple enough, eh? It even works for Fallersleben’s poem. I could get somewhat more complex and say that “Berlin” = the centre of all things wrong about being German. (Munich does too but who wants to actually write about that stuck-up hole in the ground?) But I wouldn’t want to over do it.

Or? Part 1.

Berliner Novelle is really a great little play – and it definitely goes beyond just providing losers like me fodder for making fun of the country I have to live in. With that in mind, why isn’t it being performed somewhere right now? I would actually put effort into seeing this play. Knowing what I know, I would make fun of the missing American leg and yell at the stage: “Is your missing leg a metaphor for Detlev Karsten Rohwedder? What about Alfred Herrhausen?”

If I were a student of literary sciences I could have a field-day analyzing Berliner Novelle. Seriously. I would leave out the leg metaphor thing and put some effort into comparing it to Fallersleben’s poem. I would also have a bit of fun getting down & dirty in the text and picking out all the detailed innuendo, metaphors and other literary trickery that Hacks employs to show his disgust of what has become nothing more than an annexed nation-state (of the US) that speaks too much German.

Or? Part 2.

Even though I find Hacks’ play hilarious, there is an underlying sadness about it that warrants some serious theatrical attention. It is a play that portrays a country in the middle of a tyrannical metamorphosis. The moment of change that relieved the world of the former German Democratic Republic – obnoxiously loved by so many – has nothing to do with the integration and annihilation of one sovereign nation but instead is about the all-exclusiveness of another sovereign nation and its consuming and excreting habits. How ironic when one considers that Peter Hacks literally ran away from the very same system in the 1950s that eventually would gobble him up anyway. Perhaps that’s why this play is so short and yet misses nothing!

I might have found the/a artistic work that I’ve been searching for ever since the early 90s – and it goes well with the time it takes to down a glass of German beer (a half litre play, indeed). It is certainly not a definitive work – about German unification – but when one considers what (west) Germany has produced about this historical period of (in)humanity up to this point… Well, there is still hope that works of art containing substance may yet be found hidden in former East German desks.

With that in mind, I say leave all the nonsense produced up to now about unification to the lost generation of (West German) Steppenwolf readers and writers spoiled by their Wirtschaftswunder inheritance. They are all too preoccupied with the extras of their new state-subsidized company cars or how they will look on global TV during the next World Cup. We can also leave all the Ossie stuff produced on ARD/ZDF in the same bin that we should throw the €2B German theatre landscape – that in my opinion has yet to produce any real works of art regarding Unification.

The thing is, I thought to myself before embarking on the journey of reading this play: what a boring title. I have since learned that there is a great deal to be found in something as small as a title.

Rant on.