The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Sep 27, 2014

A Bit of Hindi

When I was in school, Hindi was my Achilles heel - I could barely make head or tail of it, and the insistence on the Sanskritised variety confused me even further. We covered quite a bit of poetry those days, poetry that was occasionally melodic, occasionally ancient, and occasionally a bit moral. Here's one that suddenly came back to me recently, and the only reason it came back to me (because, to be sure, I've put all matters of Hindi education to a dark and undusted corner of my mind) is that Dusted Off mentioned it during her coverage of little-known ruins in Delhi.

बुरा जो देखन मैं चला
बुरा ना मिलिया कोय
जो दिल खोजा आपना
मुझसा बुरा ना कोय

By Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan (1556-1626), general and poet, a Navratan of Akbar.

"When I set out to look for evil, I found no-one wicked. When I searched my own heart, I found there was none as evil as I."

Sep 23, 2014

The Kingdom

Just the other day, two million residents of Scotland decided to stick with the union. For a bit there it appeared that secession was on the cards. It was a briefly thrilling moment - how many people can say they've lived through that? Independence is a stirring word. But the dissolution of centuries of union felt like a manifest tragedy. As a more-or-less unbiased bystander, I had mixed feelings about the referendum.

The idealogical contradictions on both sides were apparent to me, as I'm sure they were to many others. On the conservative side, for the people who believe in nationalism and pride in one's country, in self-rule and distance from that other union, the EU, the idea of Scotland removing itself from the UK was horrifying. How dare they, went the cry. For the leftists who clamoured for Scottish independence it was no less a contradiction: for them nationalism is anathema and the universal brotherhood of peoples is a more unifying force than political division, and yet they wanted liberal Scotland to overthrow the 'establishment' politics of Westminster. In the end, neither of them have received quite what they wanted - no independence but a further federalism of the UK, and who knows how many more fissiparous tendencies engendered.

There's talk now of London and the other big cities getting more control of revenues and spending. The Cornish would no doubt love a bit of a parliament of their own. The Welsh, for so long a forgotten appendage to the English, perhaps would want to govern themselves. As for the English - do they want yet another burdensome government and bureaucracy on which to spend their taxes?

The journalist Mark Grigorian used the Scottish referendum as a touchpoint of civility and political sophistication. He pointed out that the ruling government did not try to use the media to stamp out secessionary talk, or send the police to suppress the dissidents, or snatch the ballot, or indeed indulge in any of the actions that scared governments across the rest of the world indulge in when faced with a popular uprising. He pondered how the secessionary movement in Nagorno-Karabakh might have played out had the Azerbaijani and Armenian nations stuck to a civilised modus operandi. But while for the rest of the world the Scottish referendum may appear as a high mark in politics, for those who went through it, the psychological wounds would perhaps take longer to heal.

Sep 20, 2014


The boy has been building up his vocabulary. The other day he came up with the following ditty, which he kept repeating throughout dinner.

It's good to feed your metabolism
And pray you don't get an embolism

Sep 17, 2014

Dreck and Not-Dreck

One needs a break from obsession once in a while, and I thought I might read a bit of sci-fi to clear my mind of the seriousness of Arabic and other translated fiction. My attention was grabbed by the pulpy cover of Sarah A. Hoyt's Darkship Thieves, and I picked it up, expecting some golden-age-of-science-fiction sort of space opera. It started fairly promisingly - a young woman finds herself attacked by her father's guards. She escapes in a pod and from then on, it's all downhill - she encounters a total he-man, the kind who is surly and has a miserable past and is incredibly fascinating and whom she intensely dislikes at first, and - well, you get the drift. The book rapidly becomes a pulpy Mills-and-Boon-set-in-space. Athena Hera Sinistra could have been a proper female superhero - she is blazingly fast, a superb mechanic, she will not be patronised, she has a sense of justice. But she believes all men are genetically predisposed to pontificate (the expression 'mansplain' was unavailable in 2006?) and, anyway, were there a Bechdel test for books, this one would spectacularly fail it - she more or less only talks to men, and the few times she has a chat with a woman, it's about her he-man. As soon as I decently could, I put this dreck aside and picked up another book.

This one, Anna Kavan's Ice, has restored my faith in fiction. In a broken future, the world is slowly being consumed by ice, and the narrator searches obsessively for a broken woman he once loved and hoped to marry. The viewpoint constantly shifts in time; there are hallucinative episodes that superimpose on reality; the characters have no names, only descriptions; the weight of the cold engulfing the world produces an uneasy discontent in the mind of the reader; it is a harsh, tough book. Kavan herself was a troubled soul, a depressive and a drug addict, and one may speculate that the ice of the novel stands either for the tensions of the cold war (the book came out in 1967) or heroin. In this novel, however, she managed to momentarily bind her demons and squeeze out their essence into a bleak beauty.

Sep 14, 2014

Exam Notes

The boy cleared his first grade flute exam. The examiner wrote down some notes which we received the other day. 
This was a sprightly account with good articulation, fine rhythm and a nice tonal projection. More tonal refinement in the upper range would have heightened the mood further... This was a lively, spirited rendition. What was lacking in rhythmical clarity and tonal warmth you compensated for by an obvious sense of musical involvement... There was a nice rocking momentum here. A smoother approach with more centred intonation at ends of phrases was required, but the overall mood was conveyed nonetheless.
Sounds awfully technical. I had no idea how complex the testing procedure was...

Sep 9, 2014

Cloudy in Cornwall

Recently the wife and I spent a long weekend in Cornwall to celebrate our fourteenth wedding anniversary. Imagine our surprise when one of the staff in the hotel's restaurant turned out to be a Malayali girl. Born in Vienna to parents from Kottayam, she was spending the summer waitressing on an internship for her high school diploma in tourism. I didn't know there were any Malayalis in Vienna, said the wife. No, no, said the girl. There are lots.

She told us she spoke Malayalam reasonably well, albeit mixed up with German, in which language she was most fluent. She did not say 'albeit.' She pronounced the word Malayalam with a rather exaggerated roll of the Ls. Her English was decent, even if with a noticeable accent. In her school, she said, English was obligatory, while French and Spanish were the other two languages she learned. Wowza, we said, five languages! She smiled modestly. Her Spanish was not good, she confessed.

We asked her how she spent her time off work. There was little in that Cornish village to excite a teenager. She said she would go for hikes. We said we went on hikes. She said she took boat trips to the local big town. We also took boats, we said, but had to admit we hadn't been to that particular town. She said she was looking forward to finishing her stint so she could visit London. We live in London, we said.


Remarkably, we had decent weather for three out of the four days we stayed. Long walks along the river brought us to medieval churches, each prettier than a picture. There were stately homes belonging to sundry ancient families. There were beaches. We were told we might see dolphins or basking sharks in the tidal estuary. We didn't. We trudged up headlands of peninsulas and down emblazoned paths. We also had some fine ice cream.

The food was mighty fine, I'm glad to report. Even the vegetarian couldn't complain. I had every variety of fish. Brill. Sole. Bass. Cod. Herring. I might even have had a pilchard or two. A crab gave up its existence to feed me. I salute you, crab, even if I'm no fan of crustaceans.


At one steep descent to a beach there was a sign saying that winter storms had eroded the path, which was no longer safe to use. A boy and a girl jumped over a gate and sped down to the beach. Their father was curiously unbothered. When I pointed out the sign, he said in posh tones, Ah, that notice is just a suggestion. 


A little fellow, not more than three years old, came scarpering out and said to me, do you want to see something? He set off at high speed down a path and disappeared into the distance. I went after him and saw him climbing up onto a bench at a look-out. There was a gap between the bench and the roof of the look-out. He put one leg into it. Had he gone through it, he would have fallen a few hundred feet onto the rocks below. I would not have reached him in time. He changed his mind and came back down.

I'm still shaken, a week later.


The boy, staying back in London with his grandparents, said he missed us dreadfully, and called us twice a day. He asked if he could join us on our next trip to Cornwall, and insisted that we stay in the same hotel, so he could also enjoy the ice cream, the chatter with the Malayali girl, the hikes, and the dolphins. He was not pleased to be left behind, he said, when his parents were having fun by themselves. We are a family, he said, and should enjoy ourselves together.


On our way back to London our train developed a fault with its brakes. So in addition to the inexpressible tedium of any return journey was added a wholly frustrating half an hour delay. To boot, I ran out of books to read. So I spent some time typing out this post on our decrepit iPad. It is no fun typing on an iPad, I can tell you that much.

Sep 3, 2014

Strangest Man's Food

It was only when he was in his 80s that Paul Dirac's digestive ailment was finally diagnosed. Eating, for him, was a chore and a burden. 
Dirac always felt out of place at fancy college dinners. Rich food, vintage wine, antiquated formalities, florid speeches, the fetid smoke of after-dinner cigars - all were anathema to him. So he was probably not looking forward to the evening of Wednesday, 9 November 1927, when he was to be one of the toasts of a dinner to celebrate the election of three new fellows to St John's College. He was now certifiably a 'first-rate man', with a permanent seat at the college's high table. [...] Dirac celebrated his election to the fellowship in the traditional way, by consuming an eight course meal that included oysters, a consommé, cream of chicken soup, sole, veal escalope and spinach, pheasant with five vegetables and side salad, and three desserts. For him, the meal was not so much a celebration as a penance.

Aug 25, 2014

Reading Arabic

Owing to Shoe Lane library, I've suddenly increased my knowledge of Arabic fiction by leaps and bounds. I'd go so far as to say a quantum jump, except of course a quantum is a fairly small packet of energy, and I have expended a few centillion quanta at least. And still the well doth not dry! There are more books in the pipeline, and will help me in effort to read outside of the Eurocentric translation world that kept me occupied for the most of last year.

The plethora is all down to Arabia Books, an imprint which has been instrumental in translating Arabic fiction for six years. It has been incredibly generous as well - on its fifth anniversary last year, it gave away a complete set of its books to every library that signed up to the offer - for free! No wonder Shoe Lane library is a treasure-trove!

The coverage of the books is varied - not just in the countries but also in styles and genres. I've gone through books from Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt (of course), Lebanon, Syria, Iraq. I've seen nothing as yet from Yemen or Saudi or Oman or Kuwait or the UAE, but while I can expect some intellectual development in Yemen and Oman, not so from the others mentioned, stultifyingly rich and stupendously prodigal.

The variety in styles and approaches is eye-opening, too. All the countries above have suffered or continue to suffer under repression - political, social, sexual. You'd expect to find, therefore, novels of protest, and you do, but you also find remarkable works of commentary and character and inventiveness. There are memoirs, epic histories, small and taut tales of suffocation and sexual liberation. There are feisty women and brave girls as often as there are subtle men and layabout boys.

I guess one of the questions of anyone approaching Arabic fiction is - is there really an Arabic fiction? After all, there is so much variation in the language across the Arab world that for all intents and purposes Maghrebi Arabic is quite distinct from, say, Lebanese. I learn that much of the writing is in classical Arabic, which owing to the Qu'ran, is understood all across the region. No surprise then that authors choose to write in the high style, rather than in the vernacular, as that opens up their readership. However, Egyptian and Lebanese Arabic is fairly well-understood, I think, because of the soft power wielded by these countries - their pop and film industry is extremely popular. But it's not entirely clear to me which of the books I've read were originally written in the local Arabic.

Over a few posts, I'll try to summarise some of the highlights of my months of reading Arabic literature. For the impatient among you, I'd recommend a visit to the blog Arabic Literature (in English), which contains way way more coverage and suggestions for reading and interviews than I could ever manage.

Aug 21, 2014

Hrabal Pub Crawl

The Circle Line Pub Crawl is one of the most famous antics in the binge-drinking business. You have a pint of beer, choose a station on London Underground's Circle Line, choose a direction in which to take the train, get off at the next station, find a pub, have a pint, get back on the Circle Line, repeat - till all 27 stations are complete and 28 pints have been downed. 

The Circle Line, of course, is a misnomer these days. A little while ago, instead of the circular loop it had been running on for decades, it became a yo-yo. Still, the pub crawl remains an important rite of passage for Antipodeans with more bravado than sense. I'm looking at you, Andy.

Now, were you to find yourself in Prague - another great city for beer - you can try to repeat  Haňťa's drinking escapade. Bohumil Hrabal's hero from Too Loud A Solitude starts the Grand Slalom, a course he and his friend had attempted many times before but successfully only once.
It was so long ago I had forgotten most of the course, so my friend, whose name I had also forgotten, launched into an impassioned description of it to win me over: we'd start off at the Vlachovska and move on to the Little Horn, then down to Paradise Lost and then to Myler's and the Coat of Arms, and at each place we'd order only a large beer, because we had to have time to make it to Jarolímek and Ládá's and round the bend to the Charles IV and, after a detour down to the World Cafeteria, we'd go over to Hausmann's and the Brewery, and then across the tracks to the Good King Wenceslas and on to Pudil's or Krofta's, and finally Douda's or the Mercury before coming into the home stretch at the Palmovka or Scholler's Cafeteria, and if it wasn't too late, we'd cross the finish line at either Horký's or the Town of Rokycany. Running through the course, he clung to me drunkenly, but I finally shook him off and left Čížek's, crossing the luxuriant periwinkle patches of Charles Square, where the sun worshipers had moved from benches that were now in the shade to benches that were now in the setting sun. On my way back to the Black Brewery I had a glass of rum and then a beer and then another rum. Not until we are totally crushed do we show what we are made of.
Vlachovka restaurant, pub, winery

So after weeks of abstention, I dropped by Dark Sugars, a mighty fine chocolatier on Brick Lane. The genial man behind the counter made me a quick hot chocolate and topped it off with a palmful of slivers of dark and brown chocolate. While I stood there salivating, a woman walked in and said she wanted to get a selection of salty caramel chocs.

'Which box shall I put them in?' she said.

'Whichever you like, dear,' said the genial man.'You spend your life trying to convince men they needn't tell you what to do. So don't let me tell you what to do.'

Giggles all around.


I grabbed a salmon beigel and a salami beigel from the Beigel shop. £2.40 for a fine meal.


The reason I went to Brick Lane was not to go to Brick Lane - because, really, Brick Lane is a bit of a sham show, especially its southern end - but rather because I was at the Calvert 22, a gallery of Russian and Eastern European works. This is in Shoreditch, and on my way back to the office, I sauntered down Brick Lane. Calvert 22 were hosting an exhibition of photographs (titled Close and Far) by Prokudin-Gorsky along with works by a bunch of modern photographers. I took a cursory look at the modern works, but spent more time admiring Prokudin-Gorsky.

What a chap. He spent years on the Czar's commission, travelling back and forth and up and down the mighty empire, snapping away at people and buildings and landscapes. Many of these areas haven't been photographed since, and many of the monuments were destroyed in subsequent wars and Communist depredations. He used a colour methodology of his own making, and produced vibrant polychrome pictures that look like they might have been taken yesterday.

The exhibition ends today, August 17, so I dare say most of you will miss it.

Aug 13, 2014


Despite my stated intentions, I never did progress on my profiles of top-class women mathematicians ahead of the latest Fields Medals. The announcement has come and Maryam Mirzakhani has become the first woman to win this accolade.

As an 8-year-old, Maryam Mirzakhani used to tell herself stories about the exploits of a remarkable girl. Every night at bedtime, her heroine would become mayor, travel the world or fulfill some other grand destiny. 1

Mirzakhani as a child (via Quanta magazine)

In 2010, I'd written that desis and women had another four years to go for their next pop at the award. It turns out Manjul Bhargava has also won, and although he's Canadian/American, I'm sure desis will be quite pleased to claim him as one of our own.


1. A tenacious explorer of abstract surfaces, by Erica Klarreich, Quanta Magazine, August 12, 2014.

Aug 9, 2014

nazi crime fiction

Crime fiction, paradoxically, flourished under the nazis. A recent anthology (in French) by Vincent Platini allows us to rediscover these novels today. Le Figaro interviewed him recently, and this is a rather loose translation.

Vincent Platini is a researcher and lecturer at the Freie Universität de Berlin,. He analyzes the reasons that led the detective genre to flourish in the Third Reich. To be sure, the regime was not an undifferentiated bloc: while it maintained a totalitarian grip on cultural life evoking George Orwell's 1984, it also supported a mass culture based on frivolous and stupefying entertainment, reminiscent of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Platini says that only a few works would have been overt propaganda. Though the nazis were hostile to kitsch culture, the likes of Goebbels realised that forcing political issues onto the public would quickly jade them. They would proceed gradually. However, this supposedly apolitical culture colluded in maintaining nazi power as it held out the promise of a better life. When the war began, mass culture was used for its soothing effect: a novel such as Annex 27, published in 1944, described a prosperous Germany distant from the impending catastrophe. It reflected nazi ideology by denying the death throes of the regime.

Platini uncovers the development of consumerism and Americanism in nazi Germany, and recalls the notable advertisements for Coca-Cola and the craze for jazz. How could the censor tolerate gangster novels and films such as were set in Chicago? Platini points out that the Reich was not viscerally anti-American; indeed, the regime had a fascination for America and the public had a taste for foreign products. Hollywood set the example for German cinema, and crime fiction took on the English style. Admittedly, this leniency only lasted for a period. As censorship became more severe, the regime tried to promote 'good' German crime fiction. This was not an overt success. England and the US remained the trendsetters and German crime writers placed their novels in American settings but with a German footprint. This displacement became liberating: it was easy to pretend that major crimes no longer existed within the Third Reich; it also permitted a veiled criticism of the regime. Here, crime fiction became escapism in the true sense.

There is a curious absence of racial obsession and anti-semitic fury in the anthology. Platini explains that this is only a relative absence. Publications connected with the nazi party had their own share of caricatures and stereotypes. For instance, in the film Münchhausen, these were implicitly Jews. However, despite the importance of racist discourse of the time, there were very few Jews in crime fiction. Anti-semitism was not a theme particularly appreciated by the public, which - amidst the persecution - preferred to turn a blind eye to it. This split consciousness was reflected in the mass culture. On the other hand, and this was more chilling, a population was annihilated through its pretend exclusion. It would have been difficult to constantly stage scenes of Jewish denigration. Hiding the repression from the public eye allowed it to be exercised without restraint. On the other hand, some Jewish authors managed to re-emerge in the imagination: Zwick, for example, wrote a novel whose narrator, exiled in the US, returns to Germany to kill the one who caused the loss of his family. What a beautiful literary revenge!

Platini mentions 'treasures buried beneath the corpse'. Was there any artistic merit to contraband literature produced in nazi Germany? Indeed, he avers, there was more merit to this than the 'legitimate' culture, if art, among other things, is a challenge to the established discourse. This scorned literature acquired value precisely it was overlooked by the censors. The art that was recognised by the nazis did not perform its critical function. But an author such as Kuckhoff - of the highest intellectual training - deliberately turned towards the detective genre because it gave him a subversive opportunity that was subtle enough to be printed in the largest magazine of the time. Even a work of resistance such as The Open Letter reveals itself a gem of rhetoric, overturning the vocabulary of propaganda. But it remains the reader's responsibility to have a critical sensibility.

Krimi, une anthologie du récit policier sous le Troisième reich», selected, edited and translated by Vincent Platini, Anacharsis, 444 p., 23 €

Aug 3, 2014


Although she did not drink martinis, she graciously prepared a double for me every evening before dinner. I introduced her to Tanqueray gin and Noilly Pratt vermouth, the ingredients for a perfect martini. Sensitive husband that I was, I courteously congratulated her every day on a fine martini, cautiously suggesting that it might be a touch drier. Day after day, I congratulated her, suggesting that it might be a touch drier still. One day I sipped the martini and bathed her in kisses: “Betsey, you’re wonderful, it’s perfect.” She did not take well to my gushing. Betsey almost never raised her voice, but raise it she did: “I knew it! I knew it! Of course I’m wonderful! Of course it’s perfect! You’re drinking straight gin.”

(Eugene D. Genovese, about his wife Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, in Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage)

Jul 30, 2014

Boyish Jingoism

After England's recent and abject collapse at Lord's, I haven't felt like telling the boy that his wish has come true. For some reason, he is vehemently anti-English these days. I suspect it's because of his half-Scot pal, with whom he had a conversation as follows:

Pal: I wish Scotland would vote for independence in autumn. I don't like England.

Boy: Did you know that England ruled over India for centuries?

Pal: I can't believe they managed to rule anyone at all.

Boy: England's out of the World Cup.

Pal: Yes-s-s-s!

Boy: India's playing England at cricket.

Pal: I hope England loses.

Boy: So do I.

Wife: But, Johnny, your dad's English.

Pal: Oh yeah...

Jul 25, 2014

Apák könyve

The Guardian thought it was full of silly ideas, a veritable gamut of Bible-like begats. The New York Times thought it was graceful and alluring. The Guardian thought its women characters were only there as incubators and to bring disaster upon the men. The New York Times thought it was a virtuoso portrayal of idiosyncratic characters. When I read Miklós Vámos' The Book Of Fathers, I thought it was alternately moving and humorous, steadily descending into the morass of Hungarian history of the past three hundred years.

Each chapter had a pastoral overture, which baffled me. How did it pertain to the story that ensued? Vámos revealed in an afterword that he intended the overture to illustrate the zodiac under which the chapter's main character was born. Indeed (and I didn't notice this), each of the twelve characters in the book was born under a different star sign. 

These twelve characters are linear descendants, father-to-son, and they, Forrest Gump-like, pop up inadvertently or advertently, at major events in Magyar history. So far, so ordinary. Vámos then pointed out that the Hungarian language was an overwhelmingly rural, unsophisticated tongue until a big cultural explosion in the late 18th century led to huge innovations in its vocabulary and its establishment as a literary vehicle to rival German and French in the Austro-Hungarian empire. 

Vámos therefore wrote the earlier chapters, which dealt with his characters in 17th and 18th centuries, in an archaic form, using only the extant vocabulary of the time, and gradually modernised his text as it moved to the 1990s. He admitted that it would be difficult to render this evolution in an Indo-European language, but that he hoped the reader would notice the language steadily change.

Well, this reader didn't notice it. Damn, I wish I could read Magyar, if only for this one linguistic treat.

Detlef Bernd Blettenberg (October 13, 1949, Wirges - ) is a German writer and reporter.

Blettenberg was born an only child in a working class family, growing up in Elgendorf, a small village community. In 1966, he moved to Leverkusen where he undertook an apprenticeship as a draughtsman in mechanical engineering. He then did his military service, and after attending the Naval Signal School at Flensburg- Mürwig he went to sea as a radio operator.

In 1972, he joined an international development agency where he would spend the next two decades. He was a development worker in Ecuador between 1972-76 where he helped coordinate vocational training at the Ministry of Education in Quito. Ecuador was the setting of his novels Weint nicht um mich in Quito and Agaven sterben einsam.

Between 1982-86, Blettenberg was a commissioner in the German Development Service in Thailand; 1992-94 in Nicaragua; 2003-2004 in Ghana. His novels Siamesische Hunde and Farang were set in Thailand, while Blauer Rum and Null Uhr Managua were set in Nicaragua, and Murnaus Vermächtnis in Ghana.

Between these missions abroad, he worked as a consultant for vocational training and trade promotion in Bonn and later in Berlin. These roles led him regularly to Africa, Latin America, Asia and Arabia. In addition, he has published technical papers for professional training, for business promotion and technology transfer. Berlin is the stage for several of his novels, especially in Barbachs Bilder and Berlin Fidschitown. Impressions from his numerous foreign trips are reflected in the novels Harte Schnitte and Land der guten Hoffnung.

Blettenberg is married to the actress Andrea Heuer.


Blettenberg is a four-time winner of the Deutscher Krimi Preis: Farang (1989), Blauer Rum (1995), Berlin Fidschitown (2004), and Murnaus Vermächtnis (2011).


Check out this appraisal of Blettenberg's books: "Being involved heightens the feelings" : Political detective novels on the edge by DB Blettenberg by Elfriede Müller (translated by Sue Neale).


Again, no English translation appears to have come out. I did find a Romanian title.

Jul 14, 2014

Hans Werner Kettenbach

[Continuing my series of little biographical sketches of winners of the Deutscher Krimi Preis. This one is a quick and dirty translation of Peter Mohr's note "A Late Bloomer" in celebration of Hans Werner Kettenbach's 80th birthday, published on May 14, 2008, at]

For a highly successful writer, Hans Werner Kettenbach may have found his way to literature unusually late in life, but actually he has always been a late bloomer. He started his first job at age 28, he married at thirty, he graduated at the age of 36, and he only published his first novel just before his 50th birthday. In between he had been a construction worker, a stenographer and an Assistant Editor of the sports magazine "Kicker". When he was planning to emigrate to Caracas, the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger offered a job. Clearly this was anything than a model curriculum vitae for a writer.

A happy coincidence paved the way for Hans Werner Kettenbach, who was born on April 20, 1928 in Bendorf near Koblenz, to enter the world of literature. In 1977, he participated in a crime competition offered by a prestigious publishing house. With his manuscript Grand mit Vieren, which he had written after careful design in fourteen days, he won the first prize.

It was followed by the novels Glatteis (Black Ice), Sterbetage (filmed under the title Im Jahr der Schildkröte), and Schmatz oder Die Sackgasse which netted the Deutscher Krimi Preis for him in 1988. Nevertheless, the successful author remained a part-time writer. His main profession continued at the "Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger" - until his retirement in 1992 as Deputy Editor-in-Chief.

Kettenbach's two hats - journalism and literature - were extremely fruitful. Journalism informed the timeliness of his novels, and literature meant a respite from the politics of the day, while the many contacts he had made as a political journalist proved of great benefit for his literary work.

The novel Die Konkurrentin (2002), in which a successful local politician becomes entangled in a finely spun web of intrigue, takes place in a major Rhineland city. Here, one presumes, Kettenbach drew equally from his journalistic experience as he did in Kleinstadtaffäre (2004), in which the aging, successful writer Carl Wallot comes to a reading in a small town and is drawn into a power struggle with the dodgy manufacturer Kepler, who pulls all the strings in the province. Meanwhile, Zu Gast bei Dr. Buzzard (2006) goes into the mysterious events and emotional rollercoaster rides of two couples who befriend each other while travelling in the United States.

In addition, the passionate cigar smoker has been equally successful as a screenwriter: he wrote some episodes for the series Peter Strohm at the end of 1980s, the script "Ausgespielt" (with Manfred Krug), and was also involved in the film adaptation of his novel Davids Rache (David's Revenge) (1995).

He is inspired "not only by Patricia Highsmith, but also by Georges Simenon", says Hans Werner Kettenbach. For him, it's not just the psychologizing, but also the exciting stories of sympathetic ordinary figures standing in the background. In the near future he would like to fulfil his younger daughter's wish and "finally write a cheerful book".


Kettenbach's Schmatz oder Die Sackgasse won the Deutscher Krimi Preis in 1988.


I'm pleased to say that not only has Hans Werner Kettenbach been translated into English but I've also read one of his books. Glatteis (Black Ice) was decent, although for some reason I don't appear to have mentioned it during my various slogs through translated crime fiction. Perhaps I misremember how good it was? This book, The Stronger Sex and David's Revenge are all available from that fine publisher Bitter Lemon Press.

Jul 8, 2014

Michael Molsner

[Continuing my series of little biographies of winners of the Deutscher Krimi Preis. This one comprises translated excerpts from the German Wikipedia.]

Heiner Michael Molsner (April 23, 1939, Stuttgart - ) is a German journalist, scriptwriter and author of crime fiction and children's books.

The son of a writer and a journalist, Molsner grew up in Olsztyn, Aalen and Munich. After graduating high school in 1959, he studied German and English literature at the University of Heidelberg. Following an editorial internship, he first held a court reporter role in Munich, then journalism appointments in Hamburg and Hanover. Since 1968, he has been a freelance writer. He is one of the founders of the "Verband deutscher Schriftsteller" (Association of German Writers), a body representing the interests of professional writers, and "Autorengruppe deutschsprachige Kriminalliteratur – Das Syndikat" (The Syndicate, an association of German crime fiction authors).

Since 2000, Molsner has lived in the Ruhr area - first in Dortmund and now in Duisburg.

Acclaim in the press has been widespread: "This man knows how to entertain an audience." (Buchreport, May 2000); "Unusually smart ... his novels have Anglo-Saxon qualities" (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, August 16, 1985); "...has narrative verve and a sophisticated understanding of the social milieu" (Frankfurter Rundschau, 1996); "The best kind of challenging and addictive word play that I can think of" (Eugen Drewermann reviewing Molsner's Schwarzen Faktor). Der Spiegel wrote: "...Molsner, a trained journalist, has proven to have the greatest narrative range and multifaceted understanding of the social conditions and consequences of crime. These are exemplified in his thriller Rote Messe, published in 1973: a sociological study of a small town fearful of student agitations leading to the deaths of two migrant workers. Molsner has been compared to Leonard Sciascia and Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and lauded for his "educative entertainments and entertaining educations".


Michael Molsner has won the Deutscher Krimi Preis thrice: Die Euro-Ermittler: Der ermordete Engel (1987), Unternehmen Counterforce (1988), and Die Ehre einer Offiziersfrau and Euro-Ermittler: Urians Spur (1989). In 1998, he was awarded a special prize by The Syndicate for his services to the German crime fiction fraternity.

The Euro-Ermittler (Investigator) series dealt with issues of economic and state crime. Another of his series Global-Agenten examined political topics across Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle-East.


When asked why he wrote crime fiction, he replied: "I was a child in Olsztyn, East Prussia - northeast of Auschwitz and southwest of the Wolf's Lair. Murder there was an everyday office business. The quotidian life is the subject of literature. But literature must also be fun. And so we have the sellable form: crime fiction."

Jul 2, 2014


Alan Sillitoe's collection of short stories The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner focuses on the working class mid-Englander. In the story 'Uncle Ernest', the hero has just earned £10 for upholstering some divans, and wants to get himself a nice breakfast. He orders tea and tomatoes on toast:
A steamy appetising smell rose from the plate: he took up the knife and fork and, with the sharp clean action of the craftsman, cut off a corner of the toast and tomato and raised it slowly to his mouth, eating with relish and hardly noticing people sitting roundabout. Each wielding of the knife and fork, each geometrical cut of the slice of toast, each curve and twist of his lips joined in a complex and regular motion that gave him great satisfaction. He ate slowly, quietly and contentedly, aware only of himself and his body being warmed and made tolerable once more by food. The leisurely movement of a spoon and cup and saucer made up the familiar noise of late breakfast in a crowded cafe, sounded like music flowing here and there in variations of rhythm.

Jun 26, 2014

Frank Göhre

[Continuing my series of little biographies of winners of the Deutscher Krimi Preis. This one is a vague translation of a profile of Frank Göhre titled 'The Exception', by Ilke Kreutzträger (November 12, 2010), on]

Gruff, shameless, profound. That's the kind of books Frank Göhre writes. He gradually developed a reputation as a pornographer of the crime genre. Many photographs show him in a hat, with moustache and long coat, always looking a little grim. Just as a crime writer should.

On his webpage, he has written an 'Obituary within a lifetime' for himself. ...his sexual fantasies became so extensive that his manuscripts were no longer accepted. His writing career ended abruptly. The once-popular writer spent his last years in a hotel suite on Miami Beach, where he died in the arms of a Cuban transvestite last Friday.

And waiting at the appointed spot on the overpass by the jetty is this older gentleman. He wears a baseball cap for his stroll along the harbour. He has a warm handshake, a soft voice, kind eyes.

Frank Göhre was born in 1943 in Děčín (in the Sudetenland), and grew up in Bochum. At the age of 15, he quit school because, as he says, he was so bad at Latin. It did not look like he'd become the writer who would later in life be feted as an innovator in the German noir. He worked at a wholesale merchant's and then trained to be a bookseller. At the end of the 1960s, he joined the protests against the miserable training conditions faced by apprentices, and began at this time to write his first short stories.

He won a prize for a radio drama, and then began to receive commissions from the German public radio stations (NDR and WDR). Before he decided to become a freelance writer in 1973, he continued as a bookseller.

It seems he learned his meticulous work habits from that time. He is no mere storyteller; he is a researcher. He does not merely invent characters and let them do fictional things, but rather he investigates their personalities and saves everything he learns in case he might need it for a later story. He writes in his diary how the weather was, keeps newspaper clippings, notes down current events, scribbles on a possible story that might be interesting to a reader, perhaps even evoked memories of the time.

Göhre came to Hamburg in 1981 where he lives today with his wife in Winterhude, close to the city park. He teaches at the writers' school in Hamburg, or the screenplay camp in Freiburg, or at Ludwigsburg's Film Academy.

He doesn't like the fixed nature of a screenplay where from the outset, everything should hold together rigidly. While writing a novel, he feels much freer. He might know more or less the kind of solution he might propose for a story, but if his wife asked him on an evening which direction he might take, he would be unable to offer any information.

Göhre's daily routine is much more predictable. He is a morning person. By eight, he is usually seated at his desk in his four metres square study which is full of bookshelves. In fact, only the balcony is free from books. He writes in the mornings, and in the afternoons, he works on proofs or answers emails. The hard tasks. His wife has noticed a certain rhythm in his work, he says. He might write fast and loose a day or two, do nothing for the next two or three days, and then throw much away. Previously there were days when entire passages of text were consigned to the trashcan, and he thought he was lost for days. But nowadays he is not worried.

In his novel, Eloi - Der Auserwählte (Eloi - The Chosen One) it took Göhre five attempts to find the right beginning. Five times he wrote the text, cut out individual paragraphs, shifted the snippets back and forth, trying different combinations until they fit.

Göhre preserved all the intermediate steps of his work. He cleared out his attic, installed shelves and set up his archive. All his works are saved, even the double editions. When he is finished with a book, he said, he packed everything into an IKEA box and took it to the attic. He has finalised his will, he said. He doesn't think of death, but he knows there are family disputes in the estates of many authors.

He speaks of his new book in the same satisfied tones he spoke of his estate. Nobody in the German-speaking world writes as he does, he says, no one interleaves their plots as him. People have praised his flashbacks and changes of perspective. This is not difficult for him because he thinks not in dialogue but in images. He is an exception, he says. And there is no immodesty or boastfulness in this claim.

His years as a bookseller have given him a long view into the genre. It is something missing in his younger colleagues. Many have never heard of Chandler, he says, his face looking grim for the first time. Writing detective fiction is not as easy as many retired teachers seem to think, he says. It does not merely involve an assembly of characters, red herrings and then revealing the most unexpected person as the perpetrator.

In the summer, Göhre and his wife want to stay a month in Amsterdam. He will collect stories, do some research. Next week he will go there to find a small apartment with a garden, overlooking the canal. He has always wanted to do this, he says, and now he finally has the time.


Frank Göhre won the Deutscher Krimi Preis in 1987 for Der Schrei des Schmetterlings, and in 2011 for Der Auserwählte.


English translations? Pshaw.