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BOOKS / Many hands make enlightenment work: Peter Forbes meets Germany's poet and controversialist, Hans Magnus Enzensberger

When Hans Magnus Enzensberger came to Brighton to launch his Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, pounds 8.95) and talk with Michael Ignatieff at the Festival of Literature, he spoke about his poems of the Fifties, the years of German reconstruction: 'I felt caged,' he said, 'by the historical situation, you see. I needed to get out of the German cage.'

Traps and cages recur in Enzensberger's work. Some of his best poems show people hopelessly in thrall to forces they can't understand, let alone control: the 33- year-old woman, a child of '68, trapped by trendiness, a pair of spinsters imprisoned in their grey world of an ironmonger's shop. Enzensberger has a passion to probe such traps while reserving the right to fly off at a tangent occasionally.

He tells of the formative influence that 'The Story of Flying Robert' from Struwelpeter had on him. In that story 'All good little girls and boys' are exhorted to 'stay at home and mind their toys', but not Robert, who thinks, 'No, when it pours it is better out of doors'. He is blown away in a storm with his red umbrella and never seen again. 'I remember well, when I was five years old, it had the opposite effect on me - I identified with him'. The story neatly encapsulates both Enzensberger's relish for getting into trouble by heading into the storm, and his desire to get 'anywhere out of this world'.

A slim, bright-eyed 64, who affects a Tom Wolfish line in clothes, Enzensberger is urbanity personified, and he gives the impression of having a great store of amusements laid up as an antidote to Weltschmerz. He spent his first night in Brighton on the Pier. He is a political heavyweight who has retained the light touch.

And he is no stranger to mischief: in 1969 he slipped the German cage to spend a year in Cuba - the result was denunciation by Castro as a CIA agent, Enzensberger's recognition that communism as it existed was no alternative to capitalism, and The Sinking of the Titanic, the long poem sequence that is widely regarded as his greatest poem. In this he achieves what he regards as essential for writing poetry: 'a certain distance from what you're talking about'. In The Titanic and his next collection The Fury of Disappearance, Enzensberger attains a miraculous balance between gravitas and a debonair, fly-away manner. He has always, like Louis MacNeice (a poet he resembles in several respects), valued the moment: 'one way of puncturing the excessive continuity of things in public life - even in private life - is of course the instant, the moment - this is something the mystics knew very well, that you could puncture the flow of time.'

But it is always reality Enzensberger returns to; he deals curtly with the postmodern notion that the representation of reality, whether in science or art, is impossible: 'I'm rather impatient with all this talk about the disappearance of the subject, the I. It is a French fashion that has colonised the academic world. People at large are not affected by this.'

His poems are full of marvellously evoked paintings, especially Dutch and German landscapes and still lives, and it is above all the illusion of representation that grips him, the creation of this Janus object, part figment, part recreation of a version of reality. 'Before landscape painting there was in a certain sense no landscape,' he says. And what attracts him in still life is the link with science - the fact that many still-life artists were naturalists.

Enzensberger's breadth of interests seems inspired by the Enlightenment tradition he has espoused. Politics enters his poetry automatically: 'As little as I could imagine poetry that excluded all things to do with love and sex, how could I exclude something which so much impinges on my life.' He is a most tenacious critic of Western civilisation, but he abhors the tendency of some commentators to speak as if they were outside the thing they criticise. He is the diagnostician who attempts to show us - himself included - just what we are up to.

His new prose book, Civil War (Granta, pounds 6.99) locates the crisis firmly in the West, and not in Bosnia, the former Soviet Union or any other place we are currently wringing our hands about. Put simply, he believes that Civil War is not something that happens elsewhere, it is now omnipresent. He calls the urban violence of the skinheads, racist gangs and crack dealers 'molecular civil war'. He believes that all perpetrators of contemporary mass violence are on a par in that - unlike with communism and fascism - they have no ideology behind them: 'Right wing violence is not nationalistic. The classical nationalist was in some sense a nation builder, whereas these people are nation destroyers. A large part of public disclosure still insists on taking at face value the rationale handed out. In Yugoslavia the Serb nationalists might or might not have a cause: making Serbia an uninhabitable place.' He does not believe that Germany's problems with racist violence are any different to anybody else's: 'Most of the more terrifying aspects of the Nineties are not specific German problems. The whole question of migration and xenophobia is all over Western Europe, even in countries where you would have thought it was out of the question, the Scandinavian countries.'

The three essays in Civil War look at xenophobia and the ruined Europe of 1945, out of which grew the order which collapsed in 1989 and has still to be resolved into a new pattern. He believes the common factor in all of the world's troubled societies is a collapse of patriarchy, a power vacuum. 'Civil War has existed for a very long time. Probably before the 18th century nobody expected that humanity would establish all over the world the rule of law. Huge expectations have been held for the past two and half centuries. History has come back with a vengeance.'

This is not what anybody wants to hear, least of all the Germans, who, Enzensberger believes, have never quite recovered from the Thirty Years War of the 17th century. He has made a habit of telling Germans what they don't want to hear about reunification or Saddam Hussein. Now in suggesting that Germany (and the West) puts its house in order before tackling the globe's other trouble spots, he is flouting one of the most cherished pieties of the German liberal-left. Enzensberger shares their feelings but believes that with 40 or more civil wars raging throughout the world, universal policing is now impossible.

Civil War shows Enzensberger's appetite for controversy undiminished, but while contemplating the world situation with alarm, his intellectual composure is unruffled. He speaks fondly of his fine-book-publishing venture, die andere Bibliothek, of his collection of German and Dutch Old Masters, of typography and new poetry. At the public reading with Michael Ignatieff he lambasts the 'spooky make-believe' of the Serbs in resurrecting spurious ancient justifications for their terror. Like Primo Levi, Enzensberger possesses in abundance the only possible antidote to encroaching madness and barbarity: an unshakeable faith in clear thinking, human decency, and the curious charm of the material world.

(Photograph omitted)