At the age of seventy-nine, Hans Eichner, a professor of German language and literature at the University of Toronto, published his first novel, Kahn & Engelmann, in German; it was hailed as a masterpiece in Europe. In April 2009, a masterful English translation by Jean M. Snook appeared in Canada, published by Biblioasis, three days after the death of Hans Eichner at the age of eighty-seven. The publishers call the novel a “major work of Holocaust literature,” a fair enough evaluation. But readers in North America will find it first to be a novel of Europe in the twentieth century: the story will be familiar in bits and pieces to anyone having read or heard of Musil, Kafka, Kraus and other luminaries of Vienna before the Nazi storm.
Eichner’s narrative implicates contemporary readers as none of the others can do today by remaining a family saga, complicated by family businesses, messy divorces, rivalries, disputes, suicides, success and failure, all of it compelling to anyone with a family. This saga, however, is driven not by “character” but by history, by the necessities of the “travelling life” thrust upon Jews over the centuries and of the growing spectre of the Nazi horror materializing finally with the explosion into Austria and then all of Europe. Members of the narrator’s family (like the author’s family) escape the Holocaust by several routes, to live as survivors always with an infected aftertaste of history in their mouths.
Eichner’s narrative power is unsurpassed in any language. His sparse dialogue carries the story without effort: we move easily (and uneasily) from present (the last year of the twentieth century) to past, winding in and out of the decades.
The mundane processes of life provide the sinews of epic. Eichner can quote Goethe, rhapsodize upon Beethoven and tell folksy tales of wandering rabbis. He is unafraid of the ridiculous, the lowbrow, the sting in the tail. At the end he writes of the rabbi of Radsin: “When the corpses had been taken out, the rabbi still heard a sound in the car. He climbed in and looked: God was cowering in a corner of the car, crying. The rabbi refused to comfort him.”