From long division to multiplication

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, the fiery star of German poetry and polemic, is a surprise bestseller - thanks to his daughter.
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The Independent Culture

A poet renowned for his radical views and agonised essays about the injustices of our time has just blown his street-cred by producing two bestsellers for young people. Some earnest authors might have been crushed by such calamity, but Hans Magnus Enzensberger - one of the grand old men of German letters - takes it in his stride. "The whole thing was a big surprise to me," he says, somewhat abashed.

A poet renowned for his radical views and agonised essays about the injustices of our time has just blown his street-cred by producing two bestsellers for young people. Some earnest authors might have been crushed by such calamity, but Hans Magnus Enzensberger - one of the grand old men of German letters - takes it in his stride. "The whole thing was a big surprise to me," he says, somewhat abashed.

Enzensberger is not exactly a household name in Britain, but that is about to change. Two volumes written for his daughter Theresia (he hates the term "children's books") will be released here in the coming weeks. While not quite in the Harry Potter pay league, they look certain to be a nice little earner for the former revolutionary, having cleaned up in more than a dozen countries. When the author says he did not expect to become rich, he must be taken by his word. For the subject of the first breakthrough, The Number Devil (Granta, £12; due in September), was nothing more lucrative than pure maths. The follow-up dealt with history: Where were you, Robert? (translated by Anthea Bell; Hamish Hamilton, £14.99).

Enzensberger has not so far been known for his light touch, particularly on political and historical themes. Depending on one's perspective, he has been lightening up, or dumbing down - or maybe just mellowing with age. Still, he resents the suggestion that, just because his latest works are meant for younger readers, his standards are slipping. "I think you can't play down to children," he says. "They are just as, and in some ways, even more intelligent than grown-ups, because they are not yet pressed into conformity. They know what bores them, that's for sure."

So it was quite a challenge when he sat down to write The Number Devil, which was supposed to make maths entertaining. It features an 11-year-old boy named Robert, who is visited in his dreams by the aforesaid Devil. Over 12 nights, Robert learns about the charmed world of numbers and becomes a maths wizz himself.

"I hate the way mathematics is taught at school," Enzensberger sighs. "Theresia, who was 11 at the time, asked me to write something for her. So I wrote this, and she was the first reader. I have sold a million copies or more, with all the translations."

That was two years ago. Theresia - and Robert - are now 13 and inquisitive about history. A new adventure begins: Where were you, Robert? The eponymous hero is accidentally sucked into pictures, and finds himself drifting through time and space, visiting famous dates and venues.

Again, this historical version of Sophie's World was triggered by Theresia's curiosity. "My daughter was asking all sorts of questions that came up at school, about the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and so on," Enzensberger says. "The aim of the book is not pedagogic in the sense that I want to impart a great deal of knowledge. I want to impart a certain feeling. This boy is a sort of messenger into the past."

Robert's latest escapades also hit the jackpot, forcing another apology out of the author: "It fills a a gap in the mind, not in the market." All the same, it is rather strange for a German, who was so repulsed by his country's recent history that he fled from it for ten years, to be manufacturing historical infotainment. It is not that intellectuals of his ilk do not like talking about the war. On the contrary, they do go on about it rather a lot - and Enzensberger has probably done so more than most.

But never in a light-hearted manner. Even now, reposing in his cosy "working apartment" in one of the smartest neighbourhoods in Munich, his face is suddenly contorted with rage as he talks about his "visceral hatred" of everything that surrounded him when Germany lay in ruins.

He was founder member of Group 47, a loose club of luminaries such as Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass. This talented ensemble of self-hating Germans was hailed as the most influential movement after the war. Now one of its apostles is close to condemning it as an irrelevance.

"Quite frankly, the Group 47 is something of a historical myth," he says. "It just so happened that after the war there were a few guys who felt uneasy about the country, to put it mildly. It was like living with an enormous corpse in the cupboard. "

And now they are cured. Thirties Germany is but a creepy stopover on Robert's journey, because Enzensberger has understood that his daughter's generation has only a limited attention span for Hitler. "They don't feel, personally, very much involved. That's inevitable," he says. "Perhaps, in another hundred years, this will become something like Napoleon - some kind of black myth of history."

The "theatre of '68", in which he was "up to his neck", also seems quaint today. "Of course all this talk about revolution was rather nonsensical," he says. "But it changed the atmosphere... Germany has become a more civilised place. After '68, you couldn't shout at people any more, and couldn't just order them around."

That, sadly, has put Enzensberger's type of "engaged writer" out of business. "I still meddle," he adds hastily. But he now fights for subsidies and Internet copyright. So has he withdrawn into a ghetto of cultural politics? The old rebel is stung. "Cultural politics is important," he protests. "In Britain, of course, it doesn't matter, because Britain is a very philistine country, but in Germany culture plays a considerable role in politics, so you can't ignore it."

Thanks to generous handouts from the state, German publishing is thriving, at least in numerical terms. Little-known poets can earn £300 a night; 80,000 new books a year land on the shelves. Yet Enzensberger admits that the literary scene, to some extent, is a "fool's paradise". All thatmoney has not always created great writing: "The Seventies and part of the Eighties were pretty boring... but lately there have been newcomers who have very, very high standards and don't play down to the market, and are good story-tellers."

The rest of the world is slow to take notice, though. "There is a prejudice about German literature," he laments, "that it's Teutonic, boring and so on. I think the cliché works perhaps for theatre, because our theatre is very heavy. But so is the British. You know: it's all fucking and blood and corpses. So it's not a German phenomenon any more, this heavy-footed approach."

Enzensberger says he will not write any more books for children. He is currently preoccupied with a "poetry machine" he has constructed, which churns out lines at the touch of a button. "Some of the poems are quite enjoyable," he says. "Some of them are mediocre. So I made a remark that was not well taken by some poets. I said: anybody who can't do better than the machine should put away their pen."

Chuckling at the happy thought that he can still shock society now and then, Enzensberger stretches out on his armchair and offers a celebratory glass of sherry.

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