Before it was even in the bookstores, martin beyer's "und ich war da" was already in print already a story and a reputation. At the competition for the ingeborg bachmann prize in klagenfurt in june, the bamberg author read a condensation of his novel, which was still unpublished at the time. The jury's verdict was like annihilation. Only two of the seven jurors were in favor of beyer. The others spoke of a literary blunder, of a moral lapse even.
When now "and i was there" ullstein verlag, 182 pages, 20 euros) is presented in its entirety, then the reader has the opportunity to weigh the jury's arguments and let them sink in. The klagenfurt jurors were particularly challenged by the fact that beyer makes his main character an assistant at the execution of sophie and hans scholl. Beyer was accused of abusing the members of the weiben rose and with them the resistance against the national socialist regime as ornamental accessories.
Anyone who picks up beyer's novel now will not read anything about the weiben rose for a long time. "And I was there" is not about the siblings scholl and also not about the executioner johann reichhart. The novel is about the upper bavarian farmer august unterseher.
His father's run-down farm deprives him of his childhood and youth. Alongside his father's labor and penal regime, the hitlerjugend (hitler youth) cut deeply into august unterseher's self-determination.
On his father's farm and in the hitlerjugend, he learns that his will and actions have no power to shape reality. What he wants and does does not pay. Both break with the will of others. So let august unterseher be the one to want and act. Psychologists speak of "learned helplessness".
August unterseher does not stumble into the darkness of national socialism. He lets himself be pushed into it. Possibilities of a perhaps not necessarily happier, but nevertheless different life do exist. His friend paul and the black marketeer isa point it out to him. Unterseher only has to jump. But he does not jump.
A little flag in the wind
There is nothing subversive in his apathy. Unterseher is not even a follower or opportunist. For this, the ice-cold calculation of the revealed circumstances and possibilities was necessary. He is not capable of this. He is a man without qualities. A flag in the wind. August unterseher is simply always there.
This is the tragedy of his life. How he confronts this tragedy at the end of his life, and with it the question of his own guilt, is what "and I was there" tells of with empathy and psychological skill. That is the art of martin beyer. He gives words and sentences to the encapsulated under-seer for what he is and what he has experienced. Beyer opens up to the "rickety machine of repression" a way to use his experiences on the front to make something utterly priceless worth telling.
So goes the stimulating 160 pages long. Then beyer inserts johann reichhart, the scholl siblings and christoph probst into the backdrop of his novel. One is the most famous executioner of the third reich, the others are members of the resistance group weibe rose. All together they are real existing figures of german contemporary history.
It is as if beyer suddenly no longer trusts his upper bavarian peasant boy to carry an entire novel. It was as if the 43-year-old from bamberg had lost confidence not only in his own abilities, but also in the power of the imagination. As if historical personages were to be used for his novel.
In the execution site of stadelheim, beyer contrasts the dismal phlegm of his main character with the heroic resistance of the weiben rose. Under certain conditions, and the criminal system of national socialism is one such condition, phlegm and apathy can be synonymous with guilt: this is what beyer wants to show.
But he has already staged this insight more elegantly in the course of his novel than with the execution of hans and sophie scholl. For example, he has to assist the SS in mass deportations, and thinks nothing of it: "I'm among the guards, but I don't belong to the SS, but jochen and werner are standing next to me, so everything will be right."
Beyer did not need the scholls for his novel, nor did he need the executioner reichhart. The characters remain correspondingly pale. They are strangers in beyer's novel.
One understands what the jurors of klagenfurt love to lose their grasp on. Your criticism touches on a sore point in beyer's construction of the novel. His game with historical authenticity doesn't work out. But there is nothing morally reprehensible about it. The accusation brought against beyer comes to nothing. For beyer does not abuse the woman rose, he does not damage her inheritance. That would have been the case if he had included the scholl siblings in his novel for blob attention-grabbing reasons. There is no question of that. For that the brothers and sisters appear too late and too briefly.
The good news is that the chapter on johann reichhart and the weiben rose is the most questionable, or to put it more succinctly, the only weak point in an otherwise readable book.
"And I was there is much more elegant and touching, than the rise of klagenfurt fearing love.