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Christoph Hein
What counts in life?

Christoph Hein, acclaimed East German writer, has written a children's book. It is a mixture of advice and inspiration and deals with the 20 most important things in life – from Christoph Hein's own point of view.

By Holger Moos

Hein: Alles was du brauchst © Hanser Alles, was du brauchst  (i.e. everything you need) promises the reader 20 basics in life that make one happy. These are things like a bicycle or a beautiful dress, people – a friend, mum, family, etc. – or feelings like being in love.

The grande dame of children's book illustration, Rotraut Susanne Berner, has contributed a full-page, very felicitous illustration to each chapter. A lovely idea for the chapter “A room” is to look through the keyhole into a children's room. This image shows how important it is to have a place of retreat. It shows in a simple but refined way that on the one hand one is not completely unobserved and on the other hand one is not completely alone. No one is an island.

The cover depicts a boy looking into an oversized suitcase – an allusion to his childhood memories, which Christoph Hein brings to light in the preface. He describes how, as a child, he would pack a suitcase with his most important things on the occasion of an upcoming hospital stay. Four suitcases were created, most of whose contents he did not need at all in the end.

Mum and family are sacrosanct

Hein's texts are one to three pages long. For Kim Kindermann each text is “a little treasure and sounds almost like a love letter to the respective topic” (Deutschlandfunk Kultur). In the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Fritz Göller is also taken with Hein's guidebook, a “concentrate of civic enlightenment, of an omniscient cosy domesticity, as it developed in the fifties and sixties, in the Kästner tradition”.
But sometimes that's exactly the problem with Hein's lyricism. These and the most important things he describes are not unconventional. Some things are a bit too patronisingly and fuddy-duddyishly formulated. Thus he sings the praises of “Mum”, and the family also seems sacrosanct to him. One only loses family members through death. What might children of separation or divorce think when reading this book? Even if it is just a truism, it fits here: What is not said says just as much about a text and an author as what is said.

An opportunity for self-examination

In fact, when reading the texts, I wondered how children feel who neither have nor know some or more of the things and feelings mentioned. Like many adults, Hein often thinks and writes normatively. Boys and girls from so-called educationally disadvantaged backgrounds, for example, might be dismayed that in their domestic environment children “making music” – as one chapter is titled – is not accepted as a part of family life.
On the other hand, of course, the book can also encourage us to take a critical look at Christoph Hein's assumptions. Then the author's suggestions are a welcome opportunity to ask oneself what is really important in life. And the result can turn out to be a completely different list.

Cherry Picker Hein, Christoph: Alles, was man braucht. Die 20 wichtigsten Dinge im Leben. Mit Bildern von Rotraut Susanne Berner
München: Hanser, 2019. 88 S.