Several years ago the literary critic Richard Kämmerlings complained in the pages of the FAZ that German writers were too focused on the private sphere. Where are the novels of social satire - along the lines of Tom Wolfe's Bonfires of the Vanities? How many writers write about the workings of the economy and the broader impact on society? How many venture into the office buildings where millions of people make their living? Martin Kessel pioneered the "office novel" with his 1924 Zeitroman Herrn Brechers Fiasko; Walter Richartz's 1974 novel Buroroman was a brilliant satire on the hellish existence of lower-middle management (see my review here). Now, in his new novel Johann Holtrop, Rainald Goetz takes us into the executive suites of Germany's best-known enterprises - including Bertelsmann (fictionalized here as Assperg AG), Deutsche Bank, and Der Spiegel.
In his novel, which is hilariously funny and appalling at the same time, Goetz shows us a world that is dysfunctional, ruled by egomaniacs who spend most of their waking time plotting the destruction of their colleagues - often with disastrous consequences for the enterprise and the broader society (the book's subtitle is Abriss der Gesellschaft ("Demolition of Society")). The novel deals with the decade beginning with the Dot-Com bust and ending with the global financial meltdown at the end of the last decade. The reader follows the self-destructive career path of Assperg AG's CEO Johann Holtropp (modeled on the ex-CEO of Bertelsmann Thomas Middelhoff) who goes from Master of the Universe (the darling of the financial press) to outcast and pariah.
Johann Holtrop is a perfect sociopath, incapable of a normal relationship with another human being. To Holtrop, other humans, even those who support him, are a threat, a potential barrier to his success. "Dieser Mensch muss weg" ("I have to get rid of this person.") is Holtrop's default reaction when he comes into contact with his colleagues and subordinates. And one of the best scenes occurs early on when he fires his long-time second-in-command Thewe - an act that would later have terrible consequences both for Thewe and Holtrop. Many of us have had bosses like this: arrogant and fundamentally incompetent (Holtrop is barely able to read a balance sheet), more feared than admired. Holtrop built his empire at Assperg AG by making one (usually failed) acquisition after another as opposed to actually operating an enterprise. The fact that his mismanagement is wrecking the group's financial viability is of no consequence. Capital (debt) is there for the asking in an unlimited supply.
Despite is obvious failures as a manager, Holtrop considers himself a business visionary; appears on the talkshows and gives speeches replete with ridiculous platitudes every chance he gets. Worse, the German media establishment hangs on his every word. The press stalks him like a rock star.
But Holtrop is only an extreme example of the damaged men (there are no women; this is Germany, after all) we encounter in the C-suite. There is a memorable scene where the Deutsche Bank managing board member (Vorstand) are sitting in a meeting gazing out the window:
Jeder von ihnen wollte dorthin: hinaus, weg von da, wo er war. Sie waren oben angekommen, Bankvorstand, sogar in Vorstand der legendären Deutschen Bank, aber sie waren traurige, vom Apparat und der schon lo lange laufendedn Karriere im Apparart traurig zusammengefaltete Existenzen. Bauer ware die Inbegriffsgestalt dieser Topfigurentraurigkeit. Auch er war, was er immer hatte werden wollen: Bankchef, Topmanager. Aber wo bleibt das Glück? Wo bleiben die Millionen? [...] Das war so etwa die Stimmung: [...] die geistige Obdachlosigkeit ganz oben.
(Each one of them wanted to be out there: far away from where he was just then. They had reached the top, the managing board, the board of the legendary Deutsche Bank, but they were sorry creatures, beaten down by the apparatus and their long careers within the apparatus. Bauer was the prime example of this top-figure sadness. He, too, was that which he always wanted to be: head of a bank, top manager. But where was the happiness? And what happened to millions he would make? ...That was the mood...the spiritual homelessness at the top.)
Johann Hoitrop starts out as a novel of corporate intrigue, a legal thriller along the lines of the 2007 feature film Michael Clayton. The reader expects that some great crime has been committed and will be uncovered in the course of the novel. And indeed a great crime has been committed, but everyone - from Johann Holtrop, to the Vorstand of Deutsche Bank, to the editors of Der Spiegel to the artists whose paintings hang in the Deutsche Bank headquarters - is complicit in committing and then attempting to cover up the crime, which in the end is too big to cover up, since the entire system is corrupt. And that is why the Master of the Universe Johann Holtrop, when he is finally forced out of Assperg AG (by the deliciously evil Kate Assperg - wife of the firm's founder) is shunned by his former colleagues and the press that, prior to his fall, had celebrated him as a visionary for the New Age of Commerce.
Wer mitmachte bei der systematisch organisierten Chefkorruption im oberen und obersten Management der grossen Wirtschftsunternehmen, war akzeptiert, weil er sich durch eigene Vorteilsnahme mit dem System einverstanden erklärte und damit selber genügend korrumpierte. Kein Nichtkorumpierter sollte in ihren Kreisen verkehren, darüber wachte ängstlich die Gesellschaft der Feiglinge ganz oben. Das war der Mechanismus, dessen Opfer Holtrop nach seinem Sturz geworden war.
(Whoever went along with systematically organized executive corruption in upper and top management in the big corporate enterprises was accepted, since he indicated his approval by taking advantage of the system himself and therefore was himself sufficiently corrupted. Anyone who was not corrupted was not permitted into their circle, and the group of cowards at the top watched carefully over this. Holtrop became a victim of this mechanism after his fall. )
Is there any way out of this swamp of corruption and was anything learned by all the mistakes and failures? Absurdly, Johann Holtrop is given another opportunity to ruin a major enterprise as CEO, which he accomplishes in short order. Rainald Goetz has the good sense to kill off his protagonist at the end of the novel; last I heard, Thomas Middelhoff is plotting yet another comeback and wants to find yet another firm that he can run into the ground.