Sunday, 19 March 2017

Crime stories

Very satisfied because an order of books has arrived after 5 weeks. I ordered two books about criminal cases by a prominent East German lawyer, Friedrich Karl Kaul (1905-81). These cost 1 Euro each I think, which is why the order was slow.

Kaul is discussed in a history of East German literature which I have been consulting.
It is a platitude that the best writers, in dictatorships, are dissidents. Any bright 13 year old knows this. But if you assume it to be true, you never read writers who are not dissidents. In this way you could miss the fact that it is only, say, 80% true. Also, opposition writers are often banned in the country they are writing about. This means that the reading matter in that society is quite different. I want to read Kaul because I want to get at something more typical of East German daily experience. If you read some writer who is published by a West German publisher, who is being read by people in the West, who is getting reviews and prizes mainly from literati in the “capitalist zone”, they adapt to that milieu. A writer whose only goal is to be read in the communist republic, and perhaps in some of the “fraternal republics”, is a better source than one with wider contacts.

I got into this because I was reading a 1925 book by Egon Erwin Kisch, in an East German reprint. Kisch was a reporter who wrote only reportage, and so was one of the bases of East German literature. He died in 1948. Obviously the DDR in the 1950s was a rerun of the Weimar Republic with the nationalists having their microphone unplugged. Kisch was the perfect writer. That's the problem with the literature of the Democratic Republic – that core of perfection which you can never enjoy, like a core of ice in the ice cream which will never melt. So many writers saying, virtually, “this idea was great when it was first used 50 years ago, so I will be great if I use it”.

If you scour the second-hand listings on the internet, you find that Welsh books stuck in English bookshops are often incredibly cheap. East German books, especially non-dissident ones, are equally cheap. Since I have no money these are two fields I am penetrating in depth. In both cases the appeal is of learning about an alien society from the inside and I want books that speak to the small society and not to a wider world. Also, reading a bad book from a society can be more revealing than reading classics all the time. Certainly true for Wales. I had a wish, at some point (2010?) to uncover trivial culture from Germany. This was due to a question about the prevalence of American culture as "mass consumption”, the point about American movies and TV was obvious but the other question about how far a native “pulp” existed and what constituted its appeal was more elusive. German pulp would essentially not be exported, it would be missing from the libraries I used in London, which were founded on a notion of “seriousness”. I didn't get very far with this although I did get to watch some German Edgar Wallace films.

If you follow simple wishes, you end up reading 9 dissident writers for every one who was regimetreu, loyal to the regime. But in fact the East German regime lasted 40 years, the Soviet regime lasted 70 years. So the idea that the story is all about them falling apart is flawed.

Kaul had nothing literary about him but was very concerned to tell the truth. In a 1959 book (Kleiner Weimarer Pitaval) he quotes the original writer of true crime, Pitaval, as saying that truth is the most important thing. “Peculiar and astounding events, which move us in novels, in these works of the imagination, can because of their untruth awake no founded pleasure in us ... But when the true and the amazing are combined, then our reason and our heart enjoy a pure and true pleasure.” This was in 1736. So that is the model for East German literature, in 1736. Kisch wrote a book called Prager Pitaval about crime in Prague. I used to have a copy of this, God knows how that ended up in London. Kaul must have read this book.

Communist society was based on crime. By the government, that is. I don't expect to find very much in Kaul about crime inside East Germany. You just know it's all going to be about crime in West Germany, maybe in Britain (the home of detective mysteries), crime in the Third Reich, crime by Americans in Europe, crime in the Weimar Republic. In fact he wrote a 3-volume Weimar Pitaval in the 1950s. That says so much about the Fifties in the DDR, that people were reliving the Weimar Republic, in this case alongside the right-wing judges and lawyers who had put communists in prison for talking and set Nazi murderers free because they were patriots. So in 1955 you re-enact the trials but with the result coming out differently.

Kaul writes a 70-page account of a corruption and bankruptcy trial in 1929. I suppose it's not literature but it is very interesting. He was obviously a communist sympathiser as a young man and spent time in Lichtenburg and Dachau concentration camps around 1935. This is why he spent the 50s reliving the injustice of the past. He was also half-Jewish. Anyway, he got out, first to Colombia and then to Central America.

The big story in Russia is the alliance between the Party and the gangsters, which was growing even in the Sixties and came to run the country after the breakup of the Soviet Union. So true crime is the key to everything, even if loyal writers never mentioned it. I am not sure that there was any corruption in East Germany, they didn't have a Mafia and they didn't really have dissidents. But as for truth, clearly Kaul wasn’t willing to tell the truth about the society he lived in. Truth started at the border, more or less.





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