Thursday, February 25, 2016

Blood Brothers - Ernst Haffner

Summary: Originally published in 1932 and banned by the Nazis one year later, Blood Brothers follows a gang of young boys bound together by unwritten rules and mutual loyalty.

Blood Brothers is the only known novel by German social worker and journalist Ernst Haffner, of whom nearly all traces were lost during the course of World War II. Told in stark, unsparing detail, Haffner’s story delves into the illicit underworld of Berlin on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power, describing how these blood brothers move from one petty crime to the next, spending their nights in underground bars and makeshift hostels, struggling together to survive the harsh realities of gang life, and finding in one another the legitimacy denied them by society.  (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  Berlin! The lifeblood of Germany, the city with a life and a history all its own.  The home to many gangs of escaped welfare-youth hiding from the police in an effort to stay out of the institution.

Blood Brothers follows the gang of such boys called, of course, the Blood Brothers.  A mishmash of boys and men, these troubled youth are concerned with fleeing the law, staying out of their assigned institutionalized homes, finding somewhere warm to sleep, something warm to eat, and all other pursuits that hormonal late-teenaged boys care about.

This is a raw, unfiltered, gritty look at life on Berlin's streets.  Haffner deals with the material, as difficult and as uncomfortable as it may be to read, in an honest, forthright, matter-of-fact manner that made it feel a little more sterile than I had anticipated.  It was heartbreaking to read about these boys' fears of abuse of all kinds, their desires leading them to questionable decisions, their robbing of working-class credits and papers in a bid to survive, but it felt real. While I felt sickened, I certainly didn't feel like Haffner was going out of his way to play up the gritty factor in a way that authors now would feel necessary.

I have to admit that I did get quite frustrated with the translation.  Translating works is extremely difficult, with the translator's personal views and experiences bleeding through regardless of how hard the translator tries to divorce from the material.  In this case, the actions, expressions, and even the feeling of the book was so peppered with Britishisms that would certainly not have been expressed in pre-WWII Germany that it detracted from the story. To be fair, had I zero knowledge of the German land, language, and people, it wouldn't have mattered much to me.  But considering that Haffner has written Berlin to be one of the main characters, having the spirit of the story transported to London through translation was distracting in the extreme.

Because this is a translation, I don't know if the short, terse sentences was by design or translation.  In some parts of the book, it provided a sense of urgency and stress to the work that heightened the experience of reading it.  Other times, this sense failed and it felt slightly immature.

I struggle with social exploration books.  They make me sad, they make me feel sick to my stomach and to my heart, and then I don't know if it's the book I don't like or the state of Things As They Are in the book. My initial reaction was to give this book a low rating, but Haffner truly did an incredible job shining a harsh light on a tragic subsection of life in pre-war Berlin.  That they are what they were, I can not blame him.

Rating: Three stars.  I still couldn't get past my hangups with the translations.

For the Sensitive Reader:  There is frank talk about prostitution, both male and female, gang fights, whippings, gang initiations regarding sex, and underage drug and alcohol use.  It's a book about boys living on the streets in Berlin.  It's not going to be pretty.

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