When he was a student at Harvard, the poet Robert Lowell sought out Robert Frost and began to read to him an epic poem he had written about the Crusades. Frost interrupted the fledgling poet and said "it goes on a bit, doesn't it?" and then proceeded to read out loud the opening stanza of Keats' Hyperion, teaching young Lowell a valuable lesson in concision.
If only Jan Brandt had been taught a similar lesson from a mentor or at least an editor. His debut novel Gegen die Welt "goes on a bit" for over 910 pages. The book was recently released in English as Against the World, translated by my blogger acquaintance Katy Derbyshire (Katy, how did you have the stamina?). With his bloated novel Jan Brandt is seeking give the reader as sense of totality of a fictitious provincial town - Jericho in Ostfriesland. He might have learned something from Theodor Fontane, who could invoke an entire world in just a few pages of dialogue.
Jericho is located in what we in the US call "fly-over" country - a forgotten region that is never a destination. Brandt's Jericho is literally a "fly-over" town: fighter jets are constantly buzzing the town as they patrol the near-by East German border (the novel takes place in the 1980's shortly before 'Die Wende'). On the other side of the border is Jerichow - a town much like its West German counterpart but in a more advanced stated of decline. Jericho has seen better days. Businesses struggle to stay afloat. Young people, if they are lucky, leave to study in distant cities, never to return. Those left behind turn to drugs, alcohol, heavy metal rock and - in a few cases - suicide. Even nature conspires against Jericho; it begins snowing in September, and later heavy fog envelopes the town for months on end. The central figure in the novel is Daniel Kupers, a typical teenage boy who gets caught up in very untypical goings-on in Jericho, and soon gets blamed - mostly unjustly - for everything that goes wrong.
What's frustrating is that Gegen die Welt contains several excellent sections and strands that could be crafted into terrific novellas or novels. I especially liked the character Bernhard "Hard" Kupers, Daniel's father, a funny and energetic small businessman who does whatever it takes - including arson - keep his drug store afloat, even as he indulges in gambling and adulterous affairs. The dialogue between Hard and his wife "Biggi" is pure comedy. The strongest piece of writing is the story of the locomotive driver who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome after two young people throw themselves in front of his train. His story goes on for over 150 pages - the bottom half the page, while the top half continues the saga of Daniel Kupers.
Jan Brandt has many such "techniques" for tormenting his readers, and I confess I put the book down for weeks at a time. But, to the author's credit, I did decide to finish Gegen die Welt, and, reading the last third of the novel, I realized Brandt's true achievement. Gegen die Welt was published in 2011, three years before Pegida or AfD (Alternative for Germany), yet Brandt predicted the wave of right-wing populism that today is washing over the provinces. The citizens of Jericho are no different from those in Sachsen or Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. They see their world threatened by globalization, big box stores, automation, immigration - and are attracted to any rhetoric that promises to "make Germany great again." The best scene in Gegen die Welt is when Johann Rosing - the local real estate and construction baron running for mayor (a "mini-Trump") - mesmerizes the people of Jericho with his speech at a campaign rally:
"Das Schlimmste aber ist die Vernichtung des Vertrauens in unser Volk, die Beseitigung aller Hoffnungen und aller Zuversicht. Wie können wir diesem Schicksal entgetehn? Der Grundgedanke der Hochfinanz besteht darin, dass es nur ein Glück gibt: Das Diesseits. Dieses Glück hängt von der Lebensmöglichkeit ab, die der einzelne Mensch sich an materiellen Gütern verschafft. [...] Das wahre Glück hängt aber vom Grund und Boden ab, von der Mutter Erde, und von den Menschen, von der Qualität der Menschen. Jedes Volk kann nur dann glücklich werdem. wenn es sein eigenes Leben lebt. wenn es die Güter bekommt, die es selbst zu erzeugen fähig ist... Nur auf das, was man selbst erreicht hat, aus eigener Kraft und Anstrengung, kann man stoltz sein."
Sounds very much like a stump speech by Björn Höcke, and in fact Daniel Kupers later finds that much of the speech was lifted verbatim from Mein Kampf. Daniel's father Hard is a die-hard FDP voter, but I'm sure that today Hard and all his neighbors would be casting their ballots for the AfD. It is to Jan Brandt's credit that he does not just depict these folks as caricatures, but as humans with genuine hopes and fears.