On of the gems on the list 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is Uwe Timm's novella Die Entdeckung der Currywurst (available in English translation by Leila Vennewitz as The Invention of Curried Sausage). I enjoyed the book so much that I immediately picked up Timm's latest novel Halbschatten (review to follow, but not as good as Currywurst) and I look forward to seeing the feature film that was released last month in Germany.
DIe Entdeckung der Currywurst is a short novel about love, remembrance and the sins of omission. The narrator, who shares the same past as the author, is irritated that Berliners have claimed that peculiar German fast food delicacy - curry sausage - as their own. He recalls that his neighbor in Hamburg for many years had a stall by the harbor and was known for her wonderful curried sausage, so he decides to seek her out to get to the bottom of the origins of the recipe. He finds Lena Brücker, now nearly blind, in an old age home in Hamburg. She agrees to tell the story of how she invented curry sausage, and so, in seven interviews the story slowly emerges. But in the process of remembering she also tells the story of a love affair that took place just at Zero Hour (die Stunde Null) as the war was coming to an end in Hamburg, It is this frame story that provides the drama and fictional pull of the novella.
On the day of Hitler's marriage to Eva Braun, 43-year old Lena Brücker literally bumps into the 20-years younger naval petty officer Bremer standing in line for a movie. The British have virtually surrounded the city, and Bremer has been redeployed as part of a desperation contingent to stop the advancing tanks. Lena Brücker and Bremer watch the movie together, but the film is interrupted by an air raid. Leaving the shelter together, she invites the young man back to her flat. She cooks the famished officer a wonderful meal and they enjoy a night of lovemaking. The next morning Bremer is none to eager to join his division for what is surely a suicide mission. He stays with Lena, and stays for the next few weeks, unable to leave the apartment for fear of being shot for desertion. Lena is more than happy to have Bremer at her table and in her bed, and neglects to tell him that Germany has surrendered. Bremer would have been free to leave at any time.
To be sure, Bremer is more than complicit in Lena's plans to keep him captive with good food and sex. He is guilty of his own sin of omission by concealing from Lena the fact that he is married and has a child waiting for him. But this unwillingness to confront the truth, to speak the truth, is a theme in the book. Lena thinks about the things she has seen during and before the war:
Hab viel falsch gemacht. Und oft weggesehen. Aber dann hatte ich ne Chance, ganz zum Schluss. Is vielleicht das Beste, was ich gemacht hab, einen verstecken, damit er nicht totgeschossen wird aund auch andere nicht totschiessen kann. Was dannach kam, das hatte damit zu tun, dass alles so schnell vergangen ist. (I made many mistakes and many times I looked away. But then I had a chance at the very end. Maybe it's the best thing I ever did, to hide somebody, so that he couldn't be shot dead or kill others. What happened later, well that was because everything was over so fast.)
And this brings us back to curried sausage. It is Bremer who tells Lena of curry's magical powers; on a steam ship to India curry had cured him of a terrible skin affliction. Curry, Bremer insists, "food for the gods" (Götterspeise) It is a "cure for melancholy". And later, on that cold, gray, blustery morning when Lena Brücker sells her first curried sausage in the Neumarktplatz to the prostitutes, the effect is again magical:
Das Grau hellte sich auf. Die Morgenkälte wurde ertäglich. Es wurde ihr richtig warm, die lastende Stille laut, ja, sagte Lisa, det macht Musike, jenau...Det isset, wat da Mensch braucht, det is eenfach schaaf. (The gray skies brightened. The cold became tolerable. She began to warm up, the stillness was broken, yes, said Lisa, I can feel the vibes, oh yeah!...This is just what the doctor ordered, this is dynamite.)
Elsewhere Lena compares the smell of her curry sauce to "an aroma from 1001 nights" (Duft wie aus Tausendundeiner Nacht) an allusion to Sheherazade, who saved her own life by spinning tales night after night, just as Lena Brücker spun a tale by not saying what really happened, night after night, to keep her lover with her, to create a few days of happiness in a world ruined by war.