Mariam Kühsel-Hussaini’s novel “Emil” – Culture

Mariam Kühsel-Hussaini, born in Afghanistan in 1987 but came to Germany as a child, has already published a whole series of novels, most recently the well-received “Tschudi”, after the name of the Berlin museum director who, to the displeasure of his emperor, acquired French impressionists at the turn of the last century. With this book, opinions differed between enthusiasm and total scathing. If you read Kühsel-Hussaini’s new book, you think to yourself: both of them were probably right.

With her new book, the title of which only just calls up a name, “Emil”, the author has taken the history of Berlin as her subject. We are at the beginning of Nazi rule, and Emil is none other than Emil Cioran, the Romanian-French existential philosopher who, since the 1980s, has enjoyed growing fame as a thinker of the “Cafard”, the deep depressive mood, and as an eloquent prophet of the futility of all hope and all existence.

One marvels at the boldness of the author, who invents long conversations with Goebbels and Goering

Not long ago, some of his early writings, written in Romanian, have come to light and during the period of his Germany fellowship from 1933 to 1935 he proved to be a great admirer of the German fascists. This caused consternation; but there would have been reason earlier to distrust the pathetic, imprecise waving of this Bajazzo’s pain.

The second main character in the book is Rudolf Diels, head of the Gestapo in the early days of the Nazi state, who is also a dubious, but not purely obscure figure. This juxtaposition of two different dubious characters who act in their respective spheres is original. However, it has the practical disadvantage that the two cannot meet and the plot runs in two almost completely non-overlapping tracks until the end, whereby one plot line (Diels’s) accelerates more and more, while the other (Cioran’s) gradually decelerates almost to a standstill.

One marvels at the boldness of the author, who not only invents lengthy conversations with Goebbels and Goering, but even risks having Hitler, standing with Diels at the railing of a Rhine ship, ponder for pages about the mission of Providence. In the process, something happens that Kühsel-Hussaini otherwise never happens: she loses her own language, even if only temporarily.

Mariam Kühsel-Hussaini's novel "emily": Mariam Kühsel-Hussaini: Emil.  Novel.  Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2022. 320 pages, 24 euros.

Mariam Kühsel-Hussaini: Emil. Novel. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2022. 320 pages, 24 euros.

(Photo: Klett-Cotta)

Even her harshest critics will not deny that she has a language of her own. Her language protects the author from falling into the classic traps of the historical novel, especially in the dialogue, which usually only has the choice between brash modernity and arbitrary antiquity like the Gothic script on a beer bottle. Kühsel-Hussaini commits all of her mistakes on her own. That lifts them out of the genre, even if you often find out with regret that something doesn’t work.

Foreign-born female authors (female authors more than male authors) who write in German have greatly enriched the contemporary German language. Marica Bodrozic and Nino Haratischwili speak more than perfect German: You will discover the possibilities of our language that the long-established would never have thought of. This group also includes Kühsel-Hussaini, who, in her own way, gets a lot more out of the German language – not to say wants to extract more from it than it gives.

“Flags everywhere… everywhere, as far as the eyelid can reach!” That’s what it says right at the beginning. But you can’t describe the eye like that, because the lid doesn’t see, on the contrary, it closes the gaze. Rather, the more frequently appearing “lentils” went instead, although they also suffer from the proximity to legumes. But then again, when a woman passionately kisses the face of a man who has retained a pronounced “hack face” from his student days in a striking connection: “She particularly liked to linger in the right and really delicate corner of the mouth, in order to then leave the probably most drastic scar, her tongue felt the cheek almost separating from the chin here, and it was ‘in’ his face, between that chasm of hope and hopelessness, so deep it tingled, so deep that while she was dying the last scars that lined his chin, along with his mild aftershave flavor, said, ‘You…I want to do it again.'” That might be bizarre, but get the picture; one may think it tasteless and yet taste what this tongue tastes.

This author never ceases to wonder about Berlin

Here is the point where Emil and the author touch: “What is this, this open secret that I am breathing in here? Where is the boredom of my accursed origin, my wriggling, obsessed Romania, whose will has no end of its own, no overpowering -“. That sounds like a miserable literal translation. You have to be able to write so badly with drums and trumpets first. It is precisely the tone of the sinister Cioran himself.

In other words, Kühsel-Hussaini hits Cioran so well because she has found in him, if not a soul mate, at least a language mate. Her language speaks German, but thinks from other patterns, which has alternately delightful and confusing consequences: “These Berlin apartments weigh you.” Is the device assumed here a cradle or a scale? Hard to say. And this author never stops wondering about Berlin. “The skull and crossbones, haik jehörn, should now be incorporated more strongly into the uniforms”. The “haik” is recorded exactly, the “ümma” maybe not quite so. “Hitler spoke into their (the Germans’) heart”: No local would dare to say that; and yet it is true.

Ultimately Cioran, with all his theatrical desperation and vanity, never gets beyond himself and the pages of his journal, he kind of boils inside; that gets tiring in the long run. Whoever really fascinates Kühsel-Hussaini, on the other hand, is his antithesis to Rudolf Diel. (He is also the one whose scars are kissed so passionately.) She declares him, with some defiance, a “resister” against the new regime. That can be ruled out with some certainty with the head of the Gestapo.

Diels made repeated representations to Hitler and obtained the release of concentration camp inmates

But Diels put a stop to the SA and SS in their torture chambers. Precisely because he was a Nazi in a leading position, he was able to deflect the worst excesses. Was that why he was a hero? Kühsel-Hussaini wants it that way and will encounter resistance. But is a hero only someone who fights evil one-on-one and perishes in the process – or who joins in and tries to mitigate it from within?

Again and again Diels made representations to Hitler and Göring and obtained the release of concentration camp inmates who, for example, no longer had any skin on their backs because it had been completely whipped off. The author lays out the sadistic monstrosities of the early days of National Socialism in a wealth of detail that is rarely discussed in the routines of our culture of memory, because then you don’t want to know it that precisely anymore.

But it is only against this absolutely appalling background that the relative merit of an individual who is otherwise mired up to his ears can appear in needed contrast. That’s a gamble. A risk as well as the language in which we experience all this. Both together mean that you will not confuse this book with any other, which can truly not be said of all books.

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