In the books written by Hans Christoph Buch, the sun often gleams from a blank sky. He has travelled widely on numerous trips to Haiti, Cuba and Africa and repeatedly encountered poverty, hunger and refugees. He has captured them in the genre of literary fiction such as essays and reportage. Travel has become the foundation for his creative work. “You should be restless and transient”, according to the foreword in the University of Bern lecture series on poetry given in 2013 by H.C. Buch and entitled Boat People. Literatur als Geisterschiff. This reflection on the literary and artistic Boat People, as is stated, dates from an earlier 1991 poetry lecture entitled “Die Nähe und die Ferne – Bausteine zu einer Poetik des kolonialen Blicks”. H.C. Buch is the German contemporary author who follows the flotsam of migration across the world’s continents and oceans in order to draw attention to it.
The writer’s private world is not so far removed from foreign lands. He has family ties with Haiti that he related in 1984 in his novel The Wedding at Port-au-Prince (trans. Ralph Manheim). In his latest book, Elf Arten, das Eis zu brechen, he takes up this narrative thread, since in the meantime he has discovered more news. “Every family conceals a dark secret”, he hints before beginning an exposition of the case.
H.C. Buch’s grandfather, who managed a pharmacy in Port-au-Prince, was married to a Haitian, whose daughter, Jeanne, got engaged in 1937 to a German called Willy Schlieker. However, he consulted the Berlin authorities because his fiancée’s mother was “a mulatto”. Unsurprisingly, he was advised not to enter into a liaison with a “non-Aryan”, so he broke off the engagement and returned to Germany to make his career under Albert Speer.
The Haiti episode opens the door on the family’s poison cabinet where something wafts in the air of the “Thousand-Year Reich”. 1937 was also the year when H.C. Buch’s father returned to Germany to start a job as a legal advisor in a steel works. In 1944, his son, Wetzlar, was born. The relationship between father and son was never very close or affectionate until the father’s death in 2009. However, the son wants to go deeper into the lingering questions. In evaluating things objectively, he describes the father’s professional career with frequent interruptions which are offset in italic text and reveal the author involved in an inner monologue. There is harsh reckoning fraught with blame and innocence and, with hindsight, this casts a shadow over his life and his own anti-fascist commitment. “All well and good – but how do you explain the Hitler greeting at the end of a long letter…” The doubts are not easy to clear up.
The book revolves around this core family theme. “Who am I?’, “Where do I come from?’ and “Where am I going? are subtitles for his three chapters. Before he pushes ahead to the epicentre, the first-person narrator travels to Russia, to the Caucasus, to Cambodia, to report on daily life amidst persecution, war and terror and the mysterious things that happen to him. His life and limb are not threatened but this experience profoundly influences him. And he also brushes with extremes. He travels with an Argentine army icebreaker to Antarctica in the hope of possibly arriving at the world’s remotest spot from civilisation. Later, he visits the Arctic at the ‘ultima thule’ in northern-most Greenland.
All of this sounds like a reliable autobiography. But the author H.C. Buch hides behind a game of teasing about the protagonist’s identity known as Hans Christoph Buch, H.C. Buch or Hans Busch. Autobiographies are never to be trusted.
In his overall eleven attempts to break through the pack ice of the three basic questions, H.C. Buch proves to be a smart author who knows how a good story is narrated. His careful weighing up of certainty and intuition always retains something that lurches forward and disturbs, so repeatedly interrupting the fixation on autobiography. In this “novel” he breaks up the pack ice of his own biography with the means of ‘magic reportage’, in which his personal experiences, journalistic research and literary fiction are intermingled. This is the definitive stylistic originality of his comprehensive work.
Hans Christoph Buch, Elf Arten, das Eis zu brechen. Novel. Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, Frankfurt a. M. 2016.
By Beat Mazenauer
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright