Underworld Is A Style
What became of Ernst Haffner? That’s a question no one can seem to answer. Details about his life are scarce: he was a social worker and a journalist, and in 1932 he published his first and only novel. This book, Blood Brothers, would be burned and banned when the Nazi party came into power a year later, and all traces of its author would mysteriously vanish during World War II. That’s it, that’s all we know. All these year’s later we’re left with but a single book to judge Haffner by, a mere 192 pages with which to assess his literary merit and determine his historical significance, but what an accomplished book it is.
Told in a pragmatic, resolute style, Blood Brothers presents the grim story of a group of young teenage boys who are bound together by poverty and are all but forced to take to a life of crime in order to make ends meet. Homeless and desperate, these boys will do whatever it takes to survive for one more day. As they stroll the streets of Berlin, unsure where their next meal will come from or where they’ll find shelter from the harsh winter night, the group will have to rely on one another, not only for their physical survival, but also to restore the sense of self worth that has been stripped from them by a woefully inadequate social system that is ill-equipped to rescue them. They’ve become trapped within a vicious cycle.
Any boy who is under the age of twenty-one cannot legally apply for his working papers from the government. Thus these youths, a great majority of which hail from broken homes, find themselves trapped in a state of illegitimacy, repeating the same sad series of events over and over again: break the law, be punished for it, be released or escape from confinement, and then start all over again. The only constant they have to rely on, the only comfort they can fall back toward, is knowing that once freed they can reintegrate themselves into the safety of the tight knit street gang that will do its best to care for them until they reach adulthood.
Is there anywhere as bleak as the shelter in the disused tram depot? The clock in the yard tells you all you need to know: for years now it’s been stuck at fourteen minutes past one. It hasn’t changed from the way it was when the last freezing derelict left it a year ago: grisly in its accumulated filth, its lack of hygiene. Even in the mornings, the place is overcrowded. Beside the entrance there are two or three roughly carpentered benches and tables. At a coffee stall, you can get a pot of coffee for five pfennigs, and two dry rolls for five more. Blind never-washed windows; dust spins up from the stone-flagged floor. Perfect for the tubercular homeless seeking warmth.
While stories related to each member of the nine person gang are explored in detail, two stand out in particular. After a daring escape from an institution an older boy named Willi survives an agonizing hours long ride under a high speed train bound back towards his beloved Berlin, but his happiness upon arrival, as expected, is short lived. While performing a seemingly innocent favor for a gentleman he meets on the streets, young Ludwig winds up arrested and convicted of a crime he didn’t commit which ultimately leads to jail time. These two lost souls eventually find that they connect with each other on a much deeper level than the other boys and this discovery leads them to make a daring break from the gang in the hopes of finding a way to live more honest, upstanding lives.
As bleak as they may seem, Haffner doesn’t appear to be out to win your sympathies with regards to the boys’ predicaments. With the trained and unflinching eye of a documentarian he follows his subjects as they travel between institutions, homes, jail cells, train yards, bars, and hostels, neither condoning nor condemning their actions, but always describing them in a precise, detached, and realistic way. While odd, this stylistic choice isn’t exactly unique and it does come with strange consequences of its own. For if his intention was to insulate the reader from the plight of his subjects, then thankfully Haffner has failed quite gloriously. Simply put, it becomes impossible not to care about the fate of these boys.
A big reason for this could be credited to Michael Hoffman’s translation, which does an artful job of transporting the reader to the mean streets of 1930s Berlin. His choice of language is gritty and tough when describing the perilous situations that the boys must face on a far too frequent basis, yet it’s also surprisingly compassionate when dealing with the youths themselves and reveals not only the complexities of their no win situation, but also the fragility of their youth, their knowledge of the differences between right and wrong, and their struggles to live an honest life with a system of poorly planned laws that seem purposely designed to see them fail.
Haffner’s novel would be compelling enough for the fact that it presents readers with unique insights into daily life during the final days of the Weimar Republic, but it’s his bold insistence on presenting his subject’s lives in such a matter-of-fact way that makes Blood Brothers truly standout as an interesting, valuable piece of unforgettable literature.