Monday, February 23, 2009

Hans Eichner's Kahn & Engelmann

One of our Spring titles, the third title in the Biblioasis International Translation Series, is Hans Eichner's Kahn & Engelmann. Translated by Jean Snook, it is multiple-generational saga of heart-breaking domestic tragedy, set against the backdrop of the Anschluss, and is also a major contribution to Holocaust literature. Though it seems awfully early to begin broadcasting reviews, the book has received its first, a starred review in the forthcoming April issue of Quill & Quire, which I'll post below. Kahn & Engelmann should be available by mid-April: we're just finalizing the last of the text now before going to press.

starKahn & Engelmann

by Hans Eichner; Jean M. Snook, trans.

Publisher: Biblioasis
Price: $21.95 paper
ISBN: 978-1-897231-54-8
Page count: 336 pp.
Size: 5½ x 8½
Released: March

An emeritus professor of German romantic literature living in Rockwood, Ontario, Hans Eichner published this, his first novel, at the tender age of 79, then had to wait almost a decade after its critical and commercial success in German before seeing it translated into English. Better late than never. Following the rough trajectory of the author’s own experience, this astounding, ambitious work is a paean to the Viennese Jews driven out of their country when Austria merged into Nazi Germany in 1938.

The novel spans three generations, beginning with the migration of narrator Peter Engelmann’s grandparents, on foot – twice – from Hungary to Vienna. In Engelmann’s view, travelling is “the involuntary national sport of the Jews.” There is Engelmann’s flight to England via Brussels and, postwar, to Canada, then Israel. The experiences of Engelmann’s family in the garment trade feature prominently, in particular the poisoned relationship between his uncle (the Kahn of the title) and father, which eventually leads to the latter’s suicide.

Midway through the novel, Engelmann notes that “the taste of quince reminds me of my childhood, albeit without awakening such a world of memories as Proust’s madeleine.” Yet Eichner’s novel is nothing if not a “world of memories” written, Proust-like, in stream-of-consciousness peppered with self-analysis. Eichner has an enjoyably sardonic sense of humour, a weakness for rabbi jokes, and a fondness for Jewish tradition, which he lovingly details, while nevertheless maintaining a deep skepticism about issues of religion and race.

The Holocaust hovers over the text like a thug with his fist raised: we wonder only when the blow will come. But the novel takes an unexpected turn, and Engelmann’s large family emerges from the war relatively unscathed. Engelmann himself, however, suffers from a deep-seated guilt about the willful abandon with which he consumed the literature of his people’s executioners even as Jews died in droves in the camps. Engelmann’s developing awareness of the Nazi atrocities precipitates a career change – from professor to veterinarian – a crisis of faith that is only one potent ingredient in this original, moving novel.

No comments: