Thursday, May 07, 2009

The End: Hans Eichner in Macleans

There is a wonderful tribute in the current Maclean's to Hans Eichner by Paul Wells. You can read the whole thing here, which gives you a good sense of his life. Of course, you could quite easily get that from reading the novel, as the parallels between fact and fiction in this case are legion.

Here, however, is an excerpt dealing with the reasons behind the book and the writing of it.

All his life Eichner was tormented by the fact that he made his living studying and teaching German, the language of the people who terrorized the Jews of Central Europe. “It was his language too, you know,” Grimstad says. “He did not grow up speaking Yiddish or Hebrew. And yet it was also the horrible language of the Nazis too.” Partly to come to terms with that conflict, and partly to chronicle the vanished Jewish community of early-20th-century Vienna, he finally set about writing a novel in German after he retired from the University of Toronto. The resulting work, Kahn & Engelmann, was published by a small press in Vienna in 2000. It won good reviews and, a year later, was released in a mass-market paperback edition by Rowohlt, a large publisher, to strong sales.

Kahn & Engelmann follows three generations of a family much like Eichner’s as they fall in love, quarrel, prosper and, eventually, face the awful reality of the Holocaust. But many of Eichner’s Canadian friends, including his own adult children from an earlier marriage, couldn’t read enough German to enjoy it. Stephen Henighan, a colleague of Grimstad’s, was running the books-in-translation program at Biblioasis, a small Canadian literary press. With help from the Canada Council, Biblioasis arranged to produce an English-language edition of Kahn & Engelmann.

The first critical notice was a rave, calling it an “astounding, ambitious work.” Eichner, whose health had been failing for two years, saw the review and held an advanced reader’s copy of the English translation. “He was really delighted with it,” Henighan says.

On April 8, 2009, Hans Eichner died in his sleep. Three days later the first print run of Kahn & Engelmann, in its luminous new translation by Jean M. Snook, arrived from the printer.

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