Schutzgebiet

Content

Protectorate

Thomas von Steinaecker:
Schutzgebiet
Frankfurt am Main: Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, 2009
380 S.
ISBN 978-3-627-00160-5
Paperback Edition: btb Verlag, 2011
It is 1913. Henry Peters, a young German-American, goes to Africa along with his bride and the architect Gustav Selwin, escaping his parents' wish that he should take over his father's real estate branch in Berlin. He wants to work as Selwin's assistant in the construction of the Benesi settlement in the German colony of Tola. But the boat sinks on the coast of Tola and Henry is the sole survivor. When he arrives at Benesi, Henry adopts Selwin's identity and develops magnificent plans for the future city. Hitherto, it had simply been an old fortress, inhabited by a few Germans who planted a German pine forest in the middle of the jungle with the help of the Bremen Colonial Company and a few dozen Black workers. Now they are dreaming of a splendid future for their Benesi.

The administrator, Ludwig Gerber, is the disinherited scion of a logging dynasty from the forests of Bavaria who is trying his luck in the colonies. Then there is Käthe, his sister, whose marriage in Germany broke up and who followed her brother to Tola. The officer Schirach is in command of a small colonial army that consists mainly of black soldiers. Dr Lautenschlager, a travelling researcher, spends some time in Benesi before leaving on yet another, this time fatal, journey. Dr Brückner, the drug-addict doctor, also dies – of an overdose. And the Benesi project just doesn't want to get off the ground. The Tola colonial administration boycotts the settlement and there is no sign of the long-awaited settlers from Germany. All these factors have the small community all on edge. When, towards the end of the novel, a boat with settlers from Germany finally arrives and it seems that things may still turn out for the best, the entire forest and the newly built town are consumed in a raging fire. And soon afterwards, the First World War having broken out, French troops finish off the rest.
Robert Fallenstein, 2011
translated by Catherine du Toit

    Review

    Thomas von Steinaecker: Schutzgebiet (Protectorate)

    This can only go wrong. In 1913, the Great War is at hand. The reader knows from the start that there can be no future for the German colonial town of Benesi. Moreover, the novel starts with the end: the occupation of the Benesi fortress by French troops.

    Is "Schutzgebiet" then nevertheless so full of suspense that many reviewers could justifiably classify it as an "adventure story"? Not really. Everything is pre-determined – not only Benesi’s fate but also the individual life stories of the protagonists. They are all failures. Before coming to Africa, Henry Peters as Gustav Selwin, Benesi’s town planner, wanted to write a book about architectural designs that had not been constructed, thus becoming a "champion for the realm of the unfinished". And this is indeed what he becomes. His designs for Benesi anticipate a well thought out and beautifully symmetrical layout, including an opera house in the jungle! But when the settlers arrive, a disorganized accumulation of hastily built houses soon emerges. Ludwig Gerber, the administrator of Fort Benesi and the owner of the German forest in the jungle, is considered barmy by his father, a logging industrialist from Zwiesel. After unsuccessfully trying his luck in the Congo he is now staking everything on Tola. However seriously he tries to take himself, the colonial administration in the capital as well as the colonial company in Bremen that holds the purse strings cannot show their humiliating disregard for him more clearly. Käthe Gerber tries out the esoteric doctrines of a Czech guru, she experiments with drugs along with Dr Brückner, she tries to have an affair with Henry – nothing really brings her any satisfaction. Among the emigrants who arrive in Benesi towards the end, we find the Lustigers. Their marriage does not survive the emigration: the husband becomes an alcoholic and the wife retreats into herself.

    These interwoven life stories constitute the core of the novel; life stories that begin in Germany and in the USA and whose end in the African protectorate of Tola in 1913/1914 is only too predictable. The strongest point in the novel is the way in which these characters and their backgrounds are described with much humour, satire, priceless anecdotes and often with a masterly portrayal of their inner reasoning.

    Is it a colonial novel? Thomas von Steinaecker sees "Schutzgebiet" as such and has likened it to Uwe Timm's "Morenga", the "only truly successful novel" about German colonialism
    (http://www.literaturcafe.de: Radio interview of 16/10/2009). Timm's novel is based on a historical event, the genocide of the Hereros. Similarly, several other colonial novels, such as Alex Capus' "Eine Frage der Zeit", revisit historical events. Steinaecker's novel scarcely contains any historical links. The country of Tola and the fortress of Benesi are fictional. The protagonists are all invented – basically, only the German emperor and the World War are real. Other alienating elements are the numerous animals that don’t exist in Africa or names, such as Maysenbug, Schirach, Bodelschwingh that do have historical connotations but none that fit into the context of the novel.

    One has the impression that Africa simply serves as thrilling, exotic and often mysterious backdrop for the story of this group of Germans who come together at Benesi. Africans obviously only have minor parts. Few of them even have names. In literary discussions of the Africa novel in the postcolonial context, aspects such as "sensitivity" and "transculturality" are raised, i.e. the representation of colonialism from the perspective of both the colonizer and the colonized is stressed – even when the author is European. In this context, "Schutzgebiet" appears to be quite asymmetrical and untouched by these arguments.

    If one were to read it as a parable, the novel would rather seem to deal with the inevitable failure of absurd Utopias, whether personal or political; a pure German forest in tropical Africa or a bid for world domination, particularly at this time in history.
    Robert Fallenstein, 2011
    translated by Catherine du Toit

    Links

    Perlentaucher   deutsch

    Commented reviews from various newspapers

    Literaturcafe.de   deutsch

    Podcast: Interview with Thomas von Steinaecker about the novel “Schutzgebiet”

    Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt   deutsch

    Contents, press reviews and excerpt