Tuesday, 31 January 2012

It Takes A Community To Raise A Child

It has been about a year now since a Kindle first arrived on my doorstep, and a glance at the contents of my little electronic friend will quickly tell you what I have become accustomed to using it for.  The majority of the digital books I have stored away for a rainy day are German-language classics, books I'm not quite sure of but would like to give a go, and it is for this availability of free classic texts that I am extremely grateful.  While blindly perusing Teutonic novellas doesn't always work out for the best (e.g. Die Glücksritter, Die Judenbuche), more often than not (e.g. Theodor Storm, Theodor Fontane, Lena Christ) I've come up with some new favourite writers.

Today's book then is another of these G-Lit classics, a famous novel by a Victorian-era Austrian writer (who fits in nicely with my Women Writers Month!), Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach.  Das Gemeindekind (The Community Child or The Child of the Parish) is an excellent book, a psychological (psychoanalytical?) tale of a case study of nature versus nurture.  I'm aware of the cliché of dragging Freud's name into any review of an Austrian book, but it is sadly unavoidable in this case...

Martin Holub, a lazy, drunken brickmaker, arrives in a small village with his family, and within the space of six months is driven out again - at which point he robs and murders the local clergyman.  He is promptly sentenced to death, and his wife Barbara, who refuses to dispute Martin's attempt to lay the blame on her, is sentenced to ten years in prison.  Unfortunately, this causes another issue for the small township - what to do with the couple's two children...

Persuading the local baroness to take charge of the sweet and likeable daughter Milada is a fairly simple matter.  However, the teenage son, Pavel, a surly, stubborn youth, becomes the community's responsibility, one which it could do without.  Sent to live with a family who are themselves not without their own criminal tendencies, it seems as if Pavel is destined for an unhappy life and an early (and unnatural death).  But the local teacher, a man who knows what it's like to be ostracised decides that there is more to Pavel than the community is willing to admit...

Das Gemeindekind is a wonderful book, a Bildungsroman which avoids the trap of idealising the young man whose life it is describing.  Pavel may be the hero of our story, but he is far from perfect.  He is an angry young man, enraged with the way society in general (and certain people in the village in particular) have already decided that he is worthless and (as one character remarks) on his way to join either his mother or his father.

Whenever events fail to go his way, his short fuse burns through, further justifying the unjustified opinions of all who live around him.  On seeing the seductive and mischievous Vinska, a girl he has a secret crush on, in the arms of another man:
"Über den Anblick vergaß Pavel seinen Hunger - seine Ungeduld wich einem rasenden, ihm unbegreiflichen Schmerz; wie in den Fängen eines Raubtieres wand er sich und brachte ein entsetzliches Röcheln hervor." p.35
"At this sight, Pavel forgot his hunger - his impatience was replaced by a throbbing, incomprehensible pain; he twisted and turned as if in the clutches of a predator and brought forth a terrible groan."***
His aggressive behaviour, coupled with his tendency to play up his bad reputation, makes it likely that he will follow his parents' lead...

However, Pavel is fortunate enough to find one person willing to believe in him, the local teacher Habrecht ('Beright' would be a an appropriate Dickensian translation of this name!).  In one of his first appearances in the book, he is forced to give Pavel a thrashing in front of the class, but:
"Seine Ansicht war, daß solche vor einem jugendlichen Publikum vorgenommene Exekution demjenigen, an dem sie vollzogen wird, selten nützt, und denen, die ihr zusehen, immer schadet." p.19
"His view was that such punishments carried out before a young audience are seldom useful for those they punish, and always harmful for those who look on."***
Habrecht is initially the only one willing to take up Pavel's case (and that includes Pavel himself), but the more our young hero matures, the more he is accepted by the community, and the better his character becomes as a consequence.

As stated above, Ebner-Eschenbach uses Das Gemeindekind as a vehicle to explore the idea of nature versus nurture, forcing us to examine our prejudices.  Not only does Pavel have to contend with the lax upbringing of his biological father; his new guardians are fairly loose with the law themselves.  The more trouble Pavel gets into, however, the more likely people are to attribute it to his genes than the lack of care shown by the community.

There is also more than a hint of racial prejudice at play: the events take place back in the days of the old Austro-Hungarian empire, and it appears that the Czech-sounding name of Pavel Holub - and his family's gipsy-like wanderings - may have instantly drawn suspicion from some of the more Germanic leading citizens of the town.  If we throw in the Oedipal context of Pavel's struggles to provide a home for his mother once she is released from prison, you can see that there is a lot going on beneath the surface of this book...

On the face of it, Das Gemeindekind doesn't have a lot in common with other Bildungsromane, such as Great Expectations.  However, it does share one excellent trait with Dicken's novel.  Like Pip, Pavel does not come to the end of his story on the final page of the novel; the end of the book is merely the start of another chapter in his life (one I would be very interested in reading, if it existed...).  Unlike Great Expectations though, there's one really bad thing about this book - those of you who are unable to understand German are unlikely to ever be able to read it :(

The translations of the German in this text, marked ***, are my own, less-than-perfect attempts :)