Keeping it in the family

The winner of this year's pounds 10,000 Independent Foreign Fiction Award is 'The Film Explainer' by the late Gert Hofmann, translated from the German by his son, Michael Hofmann (Secker, pounds 9.99). Robert Winder talked to Michael Hofmann, a poet in his own right, about the experience of tra nslating his father's work
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Seen through the innocent yet knowing eyes of a young boy, 'The Film Explainer' is an autobiographical novel about a family living in provincial Germany in the Thirties, presided over by a bossy, garrulous grandfather. Grandfather, a fantasist at heart, is a 'film explainer' - someone who narrates the action for silent movies - but when he loses his job he becomes more and more attracted to the authoritarian allure of Nazism, which gives a black edge to the novel's prevailing tone of elegiac comedy

This year's Independent Award for Foreign Fiction is very much a family affair. The Film Explainer, by the German novelist Gert Hofmann, is a half-glum, half-funny story about the author's grandfather, an energetic crosspatch who starred as the man who pointed his stick at silent films and told the audience what to think. It is set in Limbach, Saxony, which is where Hofmann grew up before running away to study in West Germany, after the war. In keeping with the book's autobiographical flavour, it has been translated by the poet Michael Hofmann - the author's son.

"I was avoiding it because it seemed like a trap," he recalls. "You think of Nabokov's son translating Nabokov, or Herman Broch's son translating Herman Broch. But I really liked this particular novel. I listed it as one of my books of the year in the Times Literary Supplement, and Dan Franklin, who was then at Secker, asked if I'd translate it. It's a family book, the hero's called Hofmann. I really couldn't have borne anyone else doing it. It somehow validates us, my father, my mother, me, my children perhaps, so I had to do it. It explains my habit of wearing hats and making my two-year-old hold his hands behind his back when he walks, and talking in similes."

The Film Explainer is a curious evocation of a tense time, written in an introspective key that reveals the author's love of Kafka and Gogol. It is about a boy growing up, but it doesn't feel like a Bildungsroman; and it is a satirical portrait of a bombastic self-deluder who doesn't feel in the least malicious. The cover shows an old man leaning on a stick, leading a boy in baggy shorts along a path through a grassy summer meadow. It has a striking, blurry period feel: it looks exactly like a war-weary veteran handing out toffees to his grandson. In fact, the grandfather was a 25-year-old model, and the picture was taken specifically for the book, a careful recreation of the pastel drawing on the original German edition.

"It's funny," says Hofmann, "Gert loved that picture. He'd look at it and say, 'That's my grandfather and this is me.' Now I look at it and say: 'That's my father, and the little boy is me'. And my children look at it and say: 'That's Papa'. We're very much a father-and-son family. I wrote a poem once which had the line 'And my mother sat in the back with the girls' - and that's how it was."

How it was is a subject that has preoccupied Michael Hofmann all his life. He is German but came to England when he was four, went to school here (Winchester) and stayed. So although it might seem the height of filial devotion to translate the work of your own father, the relationship was anything but straightforward. In his much-admired volume of poems, Acrimony (Faber, 1986), Hofmann dealt in unsettling detail with the glowering shadow his father cast:

You were a late starter at fiction,

but for ten years now, your family

has been kept at arm's length.

We are the warts on your elbows,

scratched into submission, but always

recrudescent. You call each of us

child, your wife and four children,

three of them grown-up. You have

the biblical manner, the indulgent patriarch,

his abused, endless patience, smiling

the absent smile of inattention ...

Well, it's not a thank you letter, that's for sure. But it is exact and unsentimental. Gert Hofmann did indeed turn late to fiction: he began writing novels after a career lecturing on literature at universities in Germany, Britain, Yugoslavia and America. He was a prizewinning author of radio plays - "a self-made literary man". And he was also, according to his son, a very tricky Dad. "Apoplectic - that's the word," he says. Still, it didn't stop Michael making a television film about his father in 1990: the two of them took a trip together to Saxony, Gert's birthplace, a year after the reunification of Germany. "It was odd," says Michael. "I never thought of my father having a life before the one he had in Freiburg, when he had me. Authenticity is what I was after. I always felt that the stories my father told had been predigested as fiction, instead of being the truth, which I believed most children got from their fathers."

Gert died in 1993, just when Michael was starting work on the translation. But he probably wouldn't have helped. "He was sublimely indifferent," says Hofmann. "He was so preoccupied with whatever he was doing that he couldn't even remember the titles of his previous books. I've translated Patrick Suskind, and he's an interventionist, he wants to nail down every word in every language. But my father would just have said, Get on with it."

And that's what he did. "I'd be alarmed," he admits, "if everyone translated as cavalierly as I did. It's a bit like changing money: you only get 95 per cent of the book in the new language, so you have to add a little bit to make it up. You really are hoping to efface the original. The last thing you want is to produce a version that you could translate back into German, like making a mirror. So I tried to put the original aside as soon as possible. As a result the book is full of English idioms. At one point the book goes: 'Anyone who now saw grandfather on the street no longer said: Hello Herr Hofmann! He said: Heil Hitler! or: Another scorcher!' I love that, rubbing a German saying up against an English one. And the great thing of course about English is that it isn't a language in which anyone said Heil Hitler."

Hofmann is anything but a full-time translator. Very few people are (the pay's not good). But he is, after all, German, though you wouldn't know it, and he does feel something like an obligation, as a man with a perfect command of two languages, to ferry words to and fro. "Well of course, I'm German, so I have this strong sense of duty," he smiles. "But I also love the experience of straddling two languages that you get when you translate. On the other hand, it's a slightly cowardly thing. I love the discipline and the weight of novels but don't think I could actually write one".

The Film Explainer is cast in the curious, precise-yet-rambling style that Gert Hofmann also employed to impressive effect in previous novels such as Our Conquest and The Parable of the Blind. It is a ruminative description, told through the innocent yet knowing eyes of a child, of a knockabout family presided over by Grandfather, an eccentric loudmouth who is the pianist and announcer at the local Apollo cinema. At the beginning we see him in his special film-explainer's uniform ("The minute he was in his little tailcoat, the sentences started to come") and this is a teasing precursor of the more dangerous uniforms he will wear later on, when he serves as a "deputy flag-waver" at a rally in Berlin in a "squitter- yellow meeting jacket". In the book he is specifically twinned with Hitler: his own oratorical performances are compared to the Fuhrer's drastic speeches.

The book doesn't labour this comparison: it isn't an allegory. Indeed, it drifts alarmingly at certain points towards the suggestion that your average Nazi was merely a lovable old rogue. But in the end it is a macabre comedy. "One of my father's prevailing themes," says Hofmann, "was art and the artist, and this is the lowest form of artist". Grandfather takes his role very seriously; it is his heartbeat that makes the projector shake. But, in the end, it all flickers away and dies. "In the beginning was the light," Grandfather says of his cinema. "And the light was switched off." The novel ends in despair, as the author wonders what it amounts to, this attempt to trawl back an old, spent life: "the depression of the summer months, the autumn months, the winter months, the hopelessly congested southbound motorway." The motorway gag is a deliberate joke, a resolute attempt to undermine the solemnity of the previous all-encompassing sulk. But even this has a serious edge. The glorious south, where the sun always shines, is always out of reach.

My grandfather Karl Hofmann (1873-1944) worked for many years in the Apollo cinema on the Helenenstrasse in Limbach/Saxony. I knew him towards the end of his life, with his artist's hat, his walking stick, his broad gold wedding ring that from time to time would go into pawn in Chemnitz but always came back safely. It was he who gave me the idea - long after he was dead - of walking with a stick. He had trouble with his teeth and used to say: These gnashers will be the death of me one day, if I ever die. In the end, though, it was something quite different, not that at all.

My grandfather was the film explainer and piano player in Limbach. They still had those, back then. A lot of them came from the fairgrounds, from the "apish origins of art" (Grandfather). You could see that from the way they dressed. In the cinema they wore red or blue tailcoats with gold or silver buttons, a white bow tie, white trousers, sometimes top-boots. Others would wear smoking jackets.

Watch out, don't nod off, here comes a wonderful sequence, maybe the most wonderful in the whole film, cried Grandfather, reaching for his pointer. He liked to wave that around a lot. Straightaway, the handful of people in the audience were silent. You could, said Grandfather, have heard a mouse ... well, whatever it is a mouse does. The sighing and snoring all but stopped. I was tiny. I leaned back in my seat. I took it all in.

That's right, said Grandfather, I used to be a lion tamer, when he told us occasionally about his "previous existence". Only difference was that he now held a bamboo cane in his hand instead of a whip. It was part of the uniform he had to wear, his explainer's uniform, just as there was an infantry uniform for the infantryman, and a cavalry uniform for the cavalryman.

So you had ...

My explainer's uniform, said Grandfather.

It's possible - to the memory, all things are possible! - that Grandfather explained a film better in that get-up than he would have done in an ordinary jacket and trousers. According to him, he did. The minute he was in his little tailcoat, the sentences started to come. He took more risks: more forceful expressions, more subclauses, outlandish comparisons, more surprising turns of phrase and imagery. Also, "in uniform" his sentences were longer. What times! Which I suppose I must have lived through and how! - though not much of them remains.

And down there, you must imagine it, said Grandfather, stick in hand. He used it to point at the world. First he stamped his foot on the floor to gain my attention. He pointed into the empty cinema and said: There in the darkness sits the audience, that's the place for it. It's staring at me out of that darkness. And what bit of me? Well, he said, my mouth, of course, my teeth. But that's not what I want. I want it to look at my uniform. If its eyes are on my uniform, it will have more faith in me.

That gave Grandfather more time to come up with sentences. "Because each one of them has to be made up by me, they don't just grow on trees, you know." The style of the other film explainers, even in big cities, was pompous, their articulation was flaccid, the connections between the images on the screen - and how they used to flicker! - and their words were often baffling to the audience. And they mispronounce long words, said Grandfather. They are either too prompt with their explanations - before the picture - or too slow - after it's gone - so that between what you see and what you hear ... you can't find the connection. After half an hour the atmosphere is unbreathable. Indeed, said Grandfather, looking at me earnestly, there have been cases of suffocation.

You mean, people actually died?

They died.

And what do you do then?

I wait till no one's looking, then I carry the bodies out.

Aren't they too heavy?

I pull them by the feet, Grandfather said imperturbably.

You mustn't tell the boy such stuff, said Grandmother. He can't sleep afterwards.

He's giving the boy an education in horror, said Mother. No wonder he wakes up bathed in sweat.

A lot of sweating went on in the Apollo too. Other people, the elderly in particular, preferred to sleep. They would wake up during chase and murder sequences. Then they would snort back into life. And all the time that "pernicious smoking which shouldn't be allowed" (Mother). When the smoke got to be too much for Grandfather he would hang up a sign "No smoking Danger to life!" Then he would go on smoking on his own. When his throat was dry, he reached for the beer bottle with the stone cap which he would keep next to the chest he sometimes mounted for narrating. It was easier to see him up there. The air! And the heat! Sometimes colleagues came. They wore tall hats and had earrings. They didn't stay with the cinema long. With the coming of Hitler and the sound-film, they slipped quietly back to the circus. Grandfather remained.

His description at this time: His sated appearance, after lunch, his black Sunday tails, tie and tie-pin, brushcut hair, as he strolled through Limbach. Now with a foaming beer glass and in the same hand - how did he do it! - a "cigar with a cummerbund". When the photographer Wilhelm had finished, Grandfather lit up and said: That's all right, isn't it? And he started on the beer too. Behind him on the wall, photographs of the actresses of his middle years: Pola Negri as Carmen, Henny Porten as Luise Rohrbach, Asta Nielsen as Marie of the Streets, Theda Bara as Carmen as well, but quite different from Negri. Grandfather is supposed to have said to Grandmother once: Without the cinema I would find life unendurable!

That's my impression too, Grandmother replied.