A Greater Compassion

Gert Hofmann, trans. Eric Mace-Tessler, Veilchenfeld

CB Editions, 150pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781909585348

reviewed by Tom Conaghan

Originally published in Germany in 1986, Veilchenfeld’s appearance in English in 2020 is a timely reminder of our humanity. It was written by Gert Hofmann, a prolific German novelist and academic (as well as father of the poet Michael Hofmann.) Veilchenfeld is set in 1930s Germany during the Nazis' escalating persecution of its Jewish population. Though this is already the subject of innumerable historical accounts, Hofmann’s examination of it in his novel explores the true inhumanity of oppression. In an era when the scale of militarisation, deportations and murders was unprecedented, he chooses to focus on its effect on the individual. There is no reference to Hitler or the Nazi party, nor any mention of antisemitism and the laws that enshrined it. Instead we learn about life in a single small German town, gaining a sense of the tacit hatred woven into the fabric of the community.

The novel opens with the line: ‘Our philosopher has died suddenly.’ Which seems a shame, but, still, ‘our’ philosopher? It seems he was well-regarded. ‘Died suddenly’? It sounds painless, maybe a good way to go. . . In fact, the sentence is misleading, with gaps around it that hint at the disingenuousness, hatred and violence that lurk beneath the surface of the story.

The ‘philosopher’ in question is a professor of philosophy, Herr Veilchenfeld. He is attacked by a gang of youths, subsequently humiliated by the local officials before, eventually, he has his German citizenship revoked. In many stories, even in some about the Holocaust, we read of a protagonist rising to a challenge. But the abuse Veilchenfeld suffers is upsetting because he is not equal to it. As a march goes past his home, unsure of what to do, Veilchenfeld stands in a bush. When a mob forces its way into his house, he hides in a crate, then changes his mind and gets out again. It is both farcical and tragic – showing, amongst all the other humiliations, how very awkward it is when society permits savagery.

In a startlingly pertinent description of how a group of people can slip towards extremism, Hofmann depicts prejudice as resulting from the erosion of reason and thought. Already in the opening, the adults are unable to answer the children’s questions. And soon they come to doubt what they themselves have seen and heard. This permits intolerance to take root. The community invents and repeats so often the rumour that Veilchenfeld (with his imagined secret privileges) will leave in a black limo that, when he dies, the narrator finds the presumption has grafted itself into his story: ‘So instead of a black limousine to relocate him, there are the pall-bearers.’

Thoughtlessness is a balm. It allows the townsfolk to simplify Veilchenfeld’s untenable situation: they sense the vast enormity of state persecution and conclude that it is easiest to consider him already dead. Even the town doctor, an educated and empathetic man and the narrator’s father, prepares himself:

If you consider that Herr Veilchenfeld is already over sixty and isn’t the healthiest person either, says Father. . . If you consider. . .
      Yes? I ask.
Instead of the sixty kilos Herr Veilchenfeld should weigh, he doesn’t even weigh fifty and he keeps losing more and he will, despite the greatness of his mind, soon disappear and be rapidly forgotten.
      And, I ask, if you consider this?
      Exactly, Father says.

These nuances are rendered superbly in Eric Mace-Tessler’s translation, his language hitting the right register of rudimentary, off-key, suspect. In a description of the setting’s civilised facade, he writes: ‘in the mild evening air everyone could sit and chat pleasantly about the past and the future of our town,’ thereby evoking a slight hint of coercion that swells as the novel progresses.

The town sinks into brutality and, when Veilchenfeld is attacked by a mob, two middle class couples walking in the church garden agree that it is his fault for going too near the wrong bar. ‘But at all events, in such weather and in his situation, to go to the Lampenputzer at night, what has become of healthy common sense?’

Balanced against the weight of a whole community, it is the individual who seems peculiar. The masses are without agency, blameless. Like all victims, Veilchenfeld has his actions held up to scrutiny. But the professor can’t understand this and his eminent rationality only infuriates the townsfolk. Hofmann passes no judgement on the people and, in the face of his silence, the reader’s questions become more demanding. When we see Herr Thiele tear up Veilchenfeld’s passport, what is Thiele thinking? What is happening to his humanity? Is it the administration’s or his own decision to carry on ripping ‘until there was nothing left of the passport except shreds’? It is both, and, pinioned between unfathomable forces and Veilchenfeld, Thiele is angry with Veilchenfeld for making him do it. For Hofmann, persecution abases the perpetrator as well as the victim, and the more the latter is humiliated, the more the people hate him.

This question of people’s humanity is Hofmann’s deepest concern. Freed of the usual ‘inevitable’ history of Nazism, this novel is purely about thoughtlessness and hate. Hofmann shows that fascism is not a German affliction, but a foreign body that attacks like a virus. Significantly, nearly all of the characters suffer from illness. Even the town is plagued by the dust formed by construction work as the State prepares for militarisation. At the end of the novel, the town celebrates an apparently traditional folk festival that is in fact a brand new fabrication - another of the party’s parasitical impositions on the country.

By omitting overt signs of political context, Hofmann not only shows that hatred is universal but also invites our universal rejection of it. His failure to pass judgment means everything we notice is the work of our own empathy, and thus our rage and sorrow are all the more keen. And by leaving us to consider the aspects he has not mentioned, Hofmann is intent on a reconstruction job — through the art of this novel, he seeks to create a greater compassion in us.

The suggestion that Veilchenfeld’s death is a foregone conclusion becomes steadily more pervasive. Even to us, it starts to appear, as his options run out, that poor Herr Veilchenfeld would be better off dead. But when he does commit suicide at the book’s end, we are led through Veilchenfeld’s flat:

Later, as with all those who are poisoned, the need to drink, the thirst for the Dardanelles, must have come, there are glasses everywhere… an old dog blanket lies on the tiles, in which he must have wrapped himself, like someone who is going out into the cold. For at the end he would have been frozen and sweating. Then he vomited and spat blood.

In our wish for the best possible ending, we readers disdain Veilchenfeld, as if there were no other hope for him. Hofmann catches us in the act. Hatred being so ubiquitous and anonymous, we stop railing against it — and as we let our better instincts yield, become complicit. By the final pages, we know first-hand the profound dehumanisation implicit in that opening: ‘our philosopher has died suddenly.’

Hofmann’s is a world twilit by bourgeois civilisation and shocking barbarity. It allows us to understand fascism better, to better lament its hatred, and perhaps, to help us recognise it when it returns. His success is testament to his masterly eye and head and heart.
Tom Conaghan writes, edits and judges short stories. His work has appeared in MIROnline and Neon magazine.