Beyer, Marcel

Marcel Beyer: Spies

The gifted German poet and novelist Marcel Beyer, who visited Australia in 2004, was born in 1965, twenty years after the end of the war in Europe. People of his generation do not, of course, have memories of those dark years of horror and suffering, but they grew up in a world that still bore some often ambiguous and troubling marks of that terrible time. By the 1960s, parts of the German nation, at least, were experiencing almost unprecedented prosperity and freedom. When I first visited the country 1961, I soon realised that in cities like Cologne, Stuttgart and Munich the scars of war had been all but obliterated. There was a spirit of optimism and pride of achievement abroad, evident even to the casual visitor. It was possible, nevertheless, to catch hints of some disturbing undercurrents: the constant awareness that in the east of the country political repression and brutality were still rife and the suspicion that some of the contented people I saw on the streets of those cities, in cafés, theatres and elegant boutiques had swept an unsavoury past under the convenient carpet of a new order. I remember wondering as I tried to read the faces of many middle-aged and elderly gentlemen: where were they, what had they been doing two decades earlier?

Beyer’s first novel, Flughunde, (Flying Foxes) was published in 1995 – two years later it appeared in an English translation, with a radically altered title: The Karnau Tapes. That Beyer published this highly accomplished first novel fifty years after the end of the war may well have been accidental; yet The Karnau Tapes represents a memorable exploration of the paradoxes and enigmas of a communal past by someone whose experience of life was remote from that past yet remained affected by it. In a tightly constructed, poetically oblique narrative, Beyer examines and questions not merely the grand (or infernal) historical personalities of the Third Reich but also the fortunes of those – both the innocent and the tainted – who suffered the consequences of crimes committed in their name and allegedly for the greater glory of their nation and race. This is, of course, a familiar strain in German writing of the second half of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, Beyer’s perspective – his approach to his subject might be a better way of putting it – is significantly different from that of an earlier generation of postwar writers, notably Wolfgang Koeppen and Günter Grass. Little outrage is evident in The Karnau Tapes and none of the fierce satiric fury that marks several of Koeppen’s and Grass’s books. Instead – rather as in the work of the late W.G. Sebald (who was born in 1944), though in a very different mode – Beyer’s novel is distinguished by a restrained melancholy that stands as an emblem, I think, of the weariness, the spiritual fatigue so to speak, of having to bear the weight of a terrible past for which none of his generation could be held personally responsible. That feeling or apprehension seems to have led, in turn, to what might be deemed (erroneously, I must stress) a blurring of moral and ethical boundaries. Everyone in the world Beyer recreated in his novel is compromised; yet only a very few fail to reveal at least a spark or two of humanity and compassion, even though these qualities are always circumscribed by ideology and egotism.

This essential ambivalence is most notable in the novel’s central character. Hermann Karnau is an acoustic engineer. We first glimpse him setting up loudspeakers for a grotesquely stage-managed political rally. Karnau is, in some significant ways, an everyman figure, kind to animals, fond of children, a modest man with fundamentally healthy moral impulses. Yet, because of his obsession with the nature of the human voice – which prompts him to invent more and more refined techniques of recording it – he is sucked into a mire that leads him to take part in hideous medical and scientific experiments, and then, at length, to Hitler’s Berlin bunker and to capturing the last words and sounds uttered by six children (their parents are never named, but their identities are obvious) as their mother forces them to swallow cyanide capsules.

Several sections of the novel deal with those children’s experiences: their privileged life as the son and daughters of a highly-placed political figure, the person in charge of all-important state propaganda, later on their last days in the febrile and increasingly apocalyptic atmosphere of the bunker. In these pages, Beyer shows an outstanding ability to think his way into the hearts and minds of these youngsters, memorably capturing their vulnerability, yet revealing unambiguously, and with sombre effect, how even they had been corrupted by the world in which they enjoyed such comfort and privilege. While their father mounts increasingly strident and pointless propaganda campaigns, while Herr Karnau (their special friend) watches as the victims of his experiments writhe and howl in inarticulate agony, the children play games in which some of them pretend to be “undesirables” forced, on their hands and knee, to scrub cobblestones with toothbrushes – until her mother catches them at it and orders them to stop ruining the carpet.

Writing Flughunde (or The Karnau Tapes as we must call it) was, I think, an act of exorcism for Beyer. It could have provided the then thirty-year-old author with a template for a string of similar works. But, to his great credit, he seems to have resisted that temptation. His second novel, Spione (recently published in English as Spies) appeared in 2000. The world explored in The Karnau tapes is registered in this absorbing novel too, but it has receded some way into the background. The foreground is occupied by four people, three siblings and their first cousin, who, both as children and as adults, try to reach an understanding of their grand-parents’ lives and fortunes.

In Spies Beyer exploits the same allure of the oblique, the shadowy and the half-uttered that distinguishes his poetry – a few of his poems, in German, accompanied by fine English versions (some translated by Michael Hofmann), are available at This is an eloquent and disturbing fantasia on spying – whether in wartime or through the spy-hole of a theatre curtain or in the front door of a house or an apartment – in which those acts of silent and surreptitious observation take on more and more sinister significance. At length, spying comes to define the twilit world of rubbish-heaps, cemeteries and abandoned rifle-ranges where Beyer’s characters search for and perhaps invent a troubling past.

It is impossible to give a coherent account of the novel’s narrative structure, and to attempt to do so would misrepresent its delicate interweaving of images, events, situations and feelings. What it achieves is easier to identify. As the central characters search for the truth about their grand-parents – their grandfather might have been a member of the Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War, the grandmother might have been an opera singer whose “Italian eyes” they have inherited – fact and fantasy, the real and the imagined, merge and grow indistinguishable one from another. They search for clues: fading, ambiguous photographs; hissing gramophone records; a china figurine; newspaper reports and the like. Yet the object of their quest proves unattainable. They will not learn the “truth” about their grandfather, about the opera singer who is said to have died young, or about their grandfather’s second wife, in their eyes a figure of terrifying malice. At the end Beyer’s novel comes full circle. In adulthood the four central characters re-establish contact after many years of separation. But the spectral world in which they live – a world where a mysterious subterranean fungus grows to monstrous proportions – is just as puzzling and filled with silent menace as it was during their adolescence. And at least one of these people, the anonymous narrator (is his first name Marcel, perhaps?) of several sections of the novel, remains as much enmeshed in his fantasies as ever.

At its most abstract level, Spies is an account of how the passage of time robs the past of its specificity. Memory becomes corroded. It is no longer a reliable indicator of truth – if there is such a thing as the truth. At length, its images are replaced by fantasies, both lurid and sentimental. All that remains is a melancholy apprehension of a world out of joint, a world without memory of a past, a past that continues, nevertheless, to be a heavy burden. In this remarkable work, far removed from the superficialities of much contemporary fiction, Beyer has taken his exploration of the world he inherited one significant step further. The future will, no doubt, reveal him pacing forward even more boldly, with the assurance of an outstanding writer.

The Book

Beyer, Marcel: Spies / translated by Breon Mitchel. - Orlando : Harcourt, 2005. - 273 p. ISBN 0-15-100859-0 Original title: Spione (German)

Andrew Riemer taught at Sydney University for many years and is the chief book reviewer of The Sydney Morning Herald. His books include Inside Outside and Sandstone Gothic.

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