Hans Eichner’s first novel (and last—he passed away earlier this year), originally published in 2000 in Austria, was released in English last month, directly after the eminent German scholar’s death. Kahn & Engelmann opens with a joke: a traveling joke and a Jewish joke.
In the summer of 1938, a Jewish refugee is going for a walk on Carmel Beach . . . Twenty metres out from shore, a man is fighting against the waves and yelling for help in Hebrew. The refugee stops to listen, takes his jacket off, folds it neatly (one should never act too hastily); and while taking off his tie and shoes as well, before jumping into the sea to help the yelling man, he exclaims indignantly: “What a fool! Hebrew he has learned. Swimming he should have learned!”
Though jokes are used throughout the novel, the placement of this particular joke emphasizes the centrality of travel (often forced travel) to the Jewish identity—a theme expanded throughout the novel, in the story of Peter Engelmann’s own life (he lives, at various times, in Vienna, Hungary, Belgium, England, Australia, Canada, and Israel) and that of the Austro-Hungarian Jews from whom he is descended. The question Peter poses at the beginning of the novel of “How did I get here?” is especially relevant to anyone of Jewish heritage and leads Peter to trace the experiences, and travels, of the Austro-Hungarian Jews through the last hundred years.
In the course of the novel, he tells three basic stories: the first is of his own life and recent experiences living in Haifa, Israel in the late-twentieth century; another starts in 1880 and tells his family story starting with his great-grandmother Sidonie; and the third tells the broader history of Austro-Hungarian Jews.
The novel primarily follows Peter’s family as his great-grandparents Sidonie and Josef Kahn move from rural Hungary to Vienna in order to improve their children’s opportunities, but also includes the stories of the Kahn children and grandchildren, their business enterprises and their interactions with one another. One of the central storylines is the series of battles (which end tragically) between Jëno Kahn and Peter’s father, Sándor Engelmann, over their clothing firm Kahn & Engelmann (for which the novel is named).
Peter’s narrative jumps around in time, allowing him to tell whatever story he feels is necessary to explain something, or to move on when he simply gets bored with the current topic. While this stream of consciousness style is very authentic, it makes the reading experience choppy and confusing at times, especially with so many characters, years, and plotlines in the novel.
This novel struggles to be both an accurate, historical account of the Austro-Hungarian Jews and a compelling novel. It succeeds at the former attempt, but isn’t quite as successful in the latter. Eichner paints a clear picture both of the rural Jewish life, and of that in Vienna around the turn of the century. The broad scale on which the story is told, both in terms of time span and quantity of characters, adds to the richness of the novel as a story of Jewish history. In addition to the story of the Kahn family, a great deal of historical explanation is given to the various struggles which befall the Kahn family along with the greater Jewish community. These additions are very informative but occasionally bog down the flow of the novel.
The appeal the novel holds in regards to the Kahns’ specific story is more limited. Partly because of the broad scale of the novel, many of the stories become repetitive or tiresome, such the detailed description of the family’s complicated business dealings. As part of this storyline, Peter copies a large number of letters—and detailed financial transactions—written between his father and Jëno during their long battle. If the intention were to present a complete family history, this kind of detail might be more relevant, but in the context of this particular novel, these prolonged discussions are tiring. Other parts of the novel are frankly, quite bizarre and disposable. In particular, Peter’s stories about his later life and his brief marriage add nothing and seem out of character with the rest of the novel.
This said, some aspects of the family history (such as the family’s arrival to and initial struggle in Vienna) are extremely compelling. Also noteworthy are Peter’s reflections on his involvement in World War II. He is sent to an internment camp in Australia for the majority of the war, where he receives an excellent education. At one point, he is presented with the opportunity to fight in the war on the side of the Allies and declines. This decision haunts him throughout the rest of his life. This apathy is the result of what he describes as his “autism”: his inattentiveness to important issues and current events. He later decides to repent for this apathy by moving to Israel and becoming a part of the Jewish struggle there.
Perhaps the highlight of the novel for me is the many jokes and legends from the Jewish community, which Eichner uses as an introduction to a story about the Kahns or to illustrate an aspect of Jewish culture.
“You all know that ani lo jodea means “I don’t know.” Once upon a time there was a shetl in Russia where the Jews lived well, and one day the governor came and said: “The Tsar has decreed that you all have to leave.” But since the governor was a learned man who also knew a lot about Jewish things and was proud of this knowledge, the rabbi was able to persuade him to let it depend on the outcome of a competition: the governor and a representative of the shetl would ask each other questions. The first who couldn’t answer the question has his head cut off. If it was the Jew, then the Jews had to leave; if it was the governor, he got his head cut off, and the Jews could stay. Fair enough—but who was supposed to risk his life by going up against the learned man? . . . Only the shammes said he was willing to try . . . On the agreed upon day, the governor came to the market square . . . When the governor saw that his opponent was the shammes, he laughed and said: “In that case, you may ask the first question.” “Governor,” said the shammes, “what does ani lo jodea mean?” “I don’t know,” said the governor, and the executioner cut his head off.”
Not only are these jokes entertaining, but they truly do provide a window into the experiences and attitudes of the Jewish people. As the novel demonstrates, these stories are repeated around the dinner table to spread both history and values. Eichner’s novel is particularly successful at collecting a number of these stories and illustrating their centrality in the culture.
Although Kahn & Engelmann is not clearly intended to be autobiographical, a large number of events in Eichner’s early life seem to match up with those of Peter Engelmann, from their birth in Vienna, to their internment in Australia, and finally to their professorship in Canada. Eichner was recognized throughout his life as a prominent German scholar, and the novel confirms that. Kahn & Engelmann is a remarkable achievement in recreating a vibrant Jewish community lost to the past. As someone unfamiliar with the Austro-Hungarian Jews, the perspectives given are fascinating and informative. Unfortunately, Hans Eichner’s ambitions exceed his abilities, resulting in an intriguing, yet flawed, novel.
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