A question of Time
Eine Frage der Zeit
München: Knaus, 2007
A Matter of Time (Haus Publishing Ltd, 2011)
Paperback edition: btb Verlag, 2009
There are true stories that are more ludicrous than any invented stories could be. This historical Africa adventure novel is based on such a story. In 1913, the imperial colonial office sent three manual workers from the Meyer shipyard in Papenburg, Emsland, to Lake Tanganyika in the former German East Africa to assemble a 67 metre long steam boat, the "Graf Götzen".
The boat was taken apart after its launch, packed in 5000 trunks, shipped to Dar Es Salaam via Hamburg and then by train to Kigoma, the only port on Lake Tanganyika. This technical achievement was to ensure German predominance over the Lake and therefore the whole region. The rival British indeed had similar plans: The eccentric Lieutenant Geoffrey Spicer Simson was ordered to have two small gunboats transported in parts from the mouth of the Congo River by train right through Africa and then a further 166 miles with porters through the bush to Lake Tanganyika in order to sink the German steam boat.
When both projects were close to completion at the price of incredible sacrifices, the First World War broke out and both parties were put before a new situation. The British and the Germans found themselves on opposite shores of Lake Tanganyika and had to go to war with one another. Instead of a heroic battle, there was only a ridiculous skirmish with an inglorious end. The "Götzen" was sunk by the Germans themselves to avoid capture. After the end of the War, the boat was recovered and achieved movie fame as the "African Queen". Today it still steams on the lake as the "MS Liemba".
Translated by Catherine du Toit
Alex Capus: Eine Frage der Zeit (A question of Time)
As a Swiss, Alex Capus perhaps has fewer qualms about being perceived as lacking solemnity. In a colonial history rich in preposterous events, he has come across a particularly bizarre incident that truly calls for an anti-heroic novel. He has written a tongue in the cheek colonial critique that wonderfully shows the absurdity of the heroic self-image of the actors convinced of their superiority, whether they belong to the German or the English colonial powers. Vanity and eccentricity seem even crasser in this unusual scene, just like the allegedly impeccable manners of the "refined" society of London or Berlin. No wonder that it is a native inhabitant, a Masai, who is the only figure to display a measure of sovereignty.
Capus researched the subject thoroughly, not only the historical facts, but also the landscapes, smells and sounds of an African setting, which is not only picturesque and romantic but can also be quite desolate or simply too hot. This makes for a wonderfully ludicrous albeit serious novel, which tells a chapter of colonial history with light irony and furthermore does not shrink from playing on the cliché of airport novels. "Heroes", whether they are of the Wilhelminian or the Victorian kind, cannot survive in the African bush. And the role of coloniser can only be played at the cost of one’s own morality. Governor Schnee sighs: "This is the only thing that I really hold against the Blacks, that they force me to do things that I myself consider evil and that I as a human being do not have the choice between good and evil."
The Wilhelminian class-based society is transplanted to East Africa: while Lieutenant-Captain von Zimmer and his men steadfastly attempt to act in order to fulfil the imperial claims to power, the three shipbuilders from Emsland are simple labourers, who were above all attracted to the promises of good pay with which they want to fulfil their totally unheroic life dreams: paying off their homes and perhaps a holiday in Borkum. It is their indifference towards heroism that most probably saves these three even though they also have to live through their own, strictly personal, disillusionment. The technician, Anton Rüter, who simply wants to put a boat together in a professional way, cannot sidestep the demands of the intensifying war situation; Rudolf Tellmann, the wash-out, cannot get over the loss of his beloved female cheetah and Hermann Wendt, an upright social-democratic labourer soon fails because of his well meant intention not to allow anyone to cook and polish for him. Neither of the three is interested in war games and the fascination of the African scene has its limits. The landscape is hot in the first place and the exotic animals can be wonderfully recognized and classified with the help of "Petermann’s African Animal Lexicon". On the British side, Lieutenant Geoffrey Spicer has a wide reaching colonial experience and is also an experienced sailor who has been to China, Gambia and on the Thames but has not yet found his true calling. He is a colourful figure vain and narcissistic, and he is driven by the prospect of a heroic deed – which does not save him from being exposed to ridicule.
"Eine Frage der Zeit" (A question of Time) is a wonderful book for armchair travellers, for lovers of adventure novels who are nevertheless aware of the dubious nature of the genre. And whoever may have considered Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo" as a surrealist film, will come to know better: Nothing is as surreal as reality!
Translated by Catherine du Toit