Silent films and Soviet spaceships


There are two joint winners for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award for January/ February: The Film Explainer by Gert Hofmann, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (Secker, £9.99) and Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin, translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield (Harbord, £6.99). The two books join the shortlist for the £10,000 annual award which will be presented in June.

The Film Explainer is an autobiographical novel about the author's grandfather, one of whose jobs - to play piano for silent films and narrate the action - gives the book its title. Hoffman sets the sweet discords of family life against a background of increasing Nazi violence. The rise of talking pictures and the disappearance of an old way of life inspire an infatuation for the simple solutions offered by a militaristic new order.

Omon Ra is a satirical look at the Soviet space programme which could, in Tom Wolfe's hands, have been called The Wrong Stuff. A would-be astronaut advances through the arcane, mysterious and ramshackle bureaucracy of party-controlled interplanetary research until he ends up confronting a darkly comic secret: the glory offered by the space age comes at a terrible price.

The Film Explainer by Gert Hofmann

My grandfather Karl Hofmann (1873-1944) worked for many years in the Apollo cinema on the Helenen-strasse 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 fairground, 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 round 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 Grand-father, 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 uniformer, 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.

Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

As a child I often used to imagine an open newspaper, still smelling of fresh ink, with a large portrait of myself right in the centre (wearing a helmet and a smile), and the caption: ``Cosmonaut Omon Krivomazov feels just fine!'' It's not easy to understand just why I wanted this so badly. Maybe I was dreaming of living part of my life through other people - the people who woud look at this photograph and think about me, and try to imagine what I thought and felt, the inner workings of my soul. Most important of all, perhaps, I wanted to become one of these people myself - to stare at my own face, made up of thousands of typographic dots, and wonder what kind of films this man likes, and who his girlfriend is, and then suddenly remember that this Omon Krivomazov is me. Since then I've changed, gradually and imperceptibly. I've stopped being interested in other people's opinions since I realised that other people wouldn't be interested in me anyway, they wouldn't be thinking about me, but about my photograph, and with the same indifference I feel for other people's photographs. So the news that my heroism would remain unknown was no blow to me. The blow was the news that I would have to be a hero.

Mitiok and I were taken in by turns to see the Flight Leader the day after we arrived, as soon as we were kitted out in black uniforms, with bright yellow epaulettes bearing the incomprehensible initials "HSS". Mitiok went first, and I was called an hour and a half later.

When the tall oak doors first opened to admit me, I was astounded how closely the room resembled a scene from some war film. In the centre of the office stood a table covered with a big yellow map, with several men in uniform standing round it: the Flight Leader, three generals and two colonels, one a short fat man with a bright scarlet face, and the other a skinny man with thinning hair who looked like an aging sickly little boy - he was wearing dark glasses and sitting in a wheelchair. . .

The colonel in the wheelchair turned towards me . . . and removed his glasses . . . I couldn't help shuddering - he was blind . . .

"Commander of Central Flight Control Colonel Khalmuradov," said the Flight Leader, pointing at the fat man with the red face.

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