selenak: (Schreiben by Poisoninjest)
[personal profile] selenak
Back when I marathon-read Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series, I saw he's also authored a lot of novels for children, and had a new one coming out this month, a standalone called Frederick the Great Detective, which, however, mysteriously seems to be available in German before it is in English. (Mysterious because Kerr's Scottish and writes in English, and the novel, which got released today, is indeed translated from the English original, I checked the imprint.) Anyway, the novel has a very similar premise to a movie I saw at last year's Munich Film Festival, Erich Kästner and Little Tuesday - the review I wrote about the film is here: boy falls in love with Emil and the Detectives, befriends its author, Erich Kästner, in the twilight of the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich ensues, boy tries to maintain ideals of novel versus increasingly awful reality. Having read the novel now, I can add a further parallel: both Friedrich in Frederick the Great Detective and Hans in Erich Kästner and Little Tuesday have an older sibling who is enthusastically joining the Nazi cause. My original suspicion as to why Kerr picked a fictional main character instead of Hans, who actually existed and did befriend Erich Kästner, was because Hans' fate was sealed by history, and that Kerr wanted a better fate for his young hero. This turned out not to be the case, because fictional Friedrich, we're informed in the last chapter, dies just as real life Hans - and nearly the entire young cast of the 1931 movie version of Emil and the Detectives - did, as a cannon fodder soldier in WWII. However, by that point, I had already guessed various other reasons why Kerr chose a fictional over a fictionalized "real" main character, and the differences to Erich Kästner and Little Tuesday are instructive here.

For starters, there's the difference in focus: Erich Kästner and Little Tuesday is, as far as Hans is concerned, a coming of age story - he goes from child to teenager and young man in the course of the story - and has Erich Kästner as the other lead, whose perspective through the movie is even the slightly favored one. Frederick the Great Detective, by contrast, has Kästner only as a supporting character, aside from a prologue and an epilogue ends in late 1933/early 1934, and is above all a homage to Kästner's novel in structure, focusing on Friedrich and his same-age friends, who play detectives until it gets lethally dangerous. (The adults, whether benevolent or malignant or in between, are seen from the outside, the point of view is Friedrich's throughout.) For, befitting the author of the Gunther mysteries, there are actually cases to solve. (Though as opposed to Bernie, young Friedrich - who wants to become a detective through much of the novel - gets the point that you can't be a detective in a system where the criminals have taken over when Kästner desperately tells him just this.)

Indeed, while reading I wondered whether the basic idea for the novel might not have been a wish to write a sequel to Emil which tackles how Emil & Co. would act when the Third Reich starts, because Friedrich's gang with its twins has some similarities. Then again, Friedrich has a distinctly different background to Emil (or Hans Löhr) - no working class single parent mother, instead, middle class parents with his father a journalist and friend of Kästner's, which is the original connection, which allows Kerr to depict the way the press lost its freedom within a year. It also allows Kerr to let Friedrich and his parents vacation on Rügen where Friedrich meets Christopher Isherwood and Isherwood's boyfriend Heinz on the beach. (Leading to a charming scene where Friedrich manages to solve his very first case by finding Isherwood's lost watch.) Kerr provides quite a lot of real life characters making cameos throughout the novel - Billy Wilder (during the premiere of the "Emil and the Detectives" movie version which he scripted), Max Liebermann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Walter Trier etc. - but the Isherwood cameo was for me the most vivid of these. (And I'm not surprised, having come across an interview where Kerr says bascially Berlin for him as a reader, before he got there, was invented by two British writers, Christopher Isherwood and John Le Carré.)

Kästner himself lis of course the real life character with the most page time, but he feels more like a generic version of Kästner's author persona than an actual attempt at depiction of the man. (As opposed to the Kästner in Erich Kästner and Little Tuesday.) Meaning: he's a benevolent adult the way, say, Justus the Teacher in "Das Fliegende Klassenzimmer" is, with no hint of any inner conflicts, and Kerr slims down the biographical and authorial data about him to "wrote Emil and the Detective, also works as a journalist"; in this book, there are no mentions of either Kästner's other books for children or his adult novel, Fabian (the one who got burned by the Nazis at the 1933 book burning), nor of his sharp political poetry (which in Germany he was and is almost as well known for as for his prose). (Hence ahistorically Emil ends up as the burned book, when in rl Emil and the Detectives was so popular that it got published, as the only one of Kästner's works, within Germany until 1936. Then it was for the axe as well.) The one biographical background fact about Kästner mentioned in conversation by Friedrich's father is in fact a wrong one, or rather, a wrong assumption, that Kästner's mother, like Emil's, raised her son alone. In rl, not only was Kästner's father around and in contact with his son, but he outlived Kästner's mother. There is, however, a reason why I didn't mind this particular wrong statement, which is: Kästner kept his father and his relationship with him very low key as long as his mother was still alive, while his relationship with his mother was intense and very public, so a colleague from work like Friedrich's father could be forgiven for assuming the guy was either dead or had left the family. ( If you've read Kästner's autobiographical writings, one of the most memorable childhood scenes which makes you cringe in sympathy is his parents' christmas competition about him, when his father, a craftsman, proudly presented presents he made with his own hand while his mother spent all her money on presents, and both parents would regard whichever present their son showed any favour to as proof whom he loved more or a rejection respectively. And thus it went on for as long as Kästner's mother lived.)

What the novel does really well, though, is presenting a group of children responding to their world changing radically, and Friedrich as a likeable child hero who ends up rejecting the demagogery, scapegoating and promise of glory that lures his older brother in because he sees how both people he knows and strangers are abused in its name. Again, in an homage to Kästner's novel which has a memorable dream sequence, Friedrich's ongoing crisis of conscience and wonder how to avoid becoming a Nazi himself climaxes in a surreal dream where the various things he has experienced come together. The lesson he draws from this is simple and profound at the same time, very Kästnerian and indeed great advice in current day circumstances as well, to the question as ow to act: Be kind. Being kind and you can't become what you fear and hate. Be kind.

Mind you, the 1945 prologue and epilogue is a reminder that kindness won't/hasn't saved Friedrich from getting killed, but it still manages to be cautiously optimistic about human nature, because it presents his older brother repentant from Nazism, both horrified by what he's been a part of and determined to do better. But all in all, Frederick the Great Detective is still a very readable children's novel set in a dark time which also manages to pay homage to a classic while being its own thing.

Date: 24 Sep 2017 13:55 (UTC)
watervole: (Default)
From: [personal profile] watervole
Thanks for a fascinating review.

Date: 24 Sep 2017 21:28 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] zahrawithaz.livejournal.com
I always love your book reviews, and all the context you bring in to this one is wonderful.

Also, we're praying here that your election goes better than ours did.

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