Almost a Childhood

Norbert Ruebsaat

The editor and friend who told me to read Hans-Georg Behr’s Almost a Childhood (Granta Books) gave me good advice: Behr remembers things I can’t imagine being able to remember, and offers new ways of thinking about the relationship between memory and imagination. In his—almost—childhood, Behr stuttered; like all German and Austrian children of his era (and mine), he was humiliated and punished when he stuttered, so rather than speaking a lot he kept a detailed written diary. One can imagine how detailed this diary must have been. The richness of detail in this book, his memoir of World War II and the immediate post-war period in Austria and Germany, as witnessed by a child born in 1937, is monumental: reading the book is like walking through one of the memory cathedrals that the Catholic Church erected in post-Roman Europe to draw the imagination of formerly heathen, oral, Germanic tribes into a visual (and silent) space commensurate with the Christian imperial enterprise. Behr recalls this imperial fiat as personal (Catholic, Austrian) history in the way one imagines the condemned man in Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony” might recall his crimes as they are tattooed on his body by the penal instrument and its governing institution. It is not surprising that Behr’s novel has been such a hit in German-speaking countries. The English translation is slightly wooden and forfeits some of the original’s gallows humour: the English language, never having been defeated in a conventional war, does not easily register pathos. Read this book nonetheless.

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Norbert Ruebsaat

Norbert Ruebsaat has written many articles for Geist. He lived in Vancouver and taught at Simon Fraser University.


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