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Real life on the silent screen : BOOKS : FICTION

THE FILM EXPLAINER by Gert Hofmann, trs Michael Hofmann Secker £9.99
GERT HOFMANN was born in Limbach/Saxony in 1931. He made his living as a lecturer in German literature, and was also a prolific author of radio plays. In 1979 he published his first prose work, and thereafter put out a novel a year until his death in 1993. His poet son Michael painted a memorable portrait of the father as sacred monster in his 1986 book of poems Acrimony, a portrait compounded of fear, exasperation and thwarted love. Here was a modern Polonius skewered in verse: the bundle of accidents, incoherence and bad breath who sat down every day to work it all up into art.

The Film Explainer is his last novel, translated by his son. It seems that they could only relate - and compete - in their respective writings. A recent TLS poem about Gert's death, "Epithanaton", tells us that he left this completed manuscript on his desk and, a little before, "a choleric note dashed off to me/cutting me off... /for nothing I could this time see that I'd done wrong". So we have elegist and translator mediating a novel which has at its centre a drifter-cum-dreamer who sometimes writes poetry. You feel there's some sort of bildungsroman going on between the lines.

All this is incidental, however, to a very good read. Set in Hofmann's own stifling small town of Limbach, this presumably autobiographical tale is devoted, in both senses, to the writer's grandfather Karl Hofmann (1873- 1944), who works for a pittance in the Apollo cinema as "film explainer and piano player", pointing out the significance of especially good scenes with his bamboo cane and gilding all the filmic emotion with appropriate trills and chords. Grandfather puts on a special uniform to do this, recalling the "apish origins of art" at the fairground where he was once a barker. Off duty he wears his "artist's hat", dreams of another and better world, and craves "better teeth with which to chew his bacon, more hair to comb and some more reliable equipment to stick in Grandmother and Fraulein Fritsche who lived by the sewage works".

Reality he finds grey and unrewarding. Only the "artificial" world of the cinema keeps him going. "It's reality, said Grandfather, which we have every reason to fear! And to shiver at too!" His long-suffering wife sees things rather differently, though: "He's not just an artist without any bread, he's an artist without any art ... something wants to get out of him, but there's nothing inside!"

Grandfather blames Herr Theilhaber, his Jewish employer, for his casual employment, low wages, and impending redundancy, thanks to the imminent arrival of the talkies. A passing reference to the "39 billion marks" it cost for Grandfather's second-hand clothes reminds us that we are in the hyper-inflationary days of an unstable country which is already breeding clumps of men in brown shirts who take a special interest in people's discontents and the shape of their noses. Once The Jazz Singer arrives Grandfather's fate is sealed. "Only in cognisance of death does everything become clear" runs one of the many saws he is addicted to. "It's not just that I don't bring any money into the house, I'm no longer the higher being I always believed I was."

Booted out of his job and Grandmother's bed (for infidelity), he finds succour in the arms - and indeed the boots - of new friends who see to it that the cinema is vandalised and Herr Theilhaber sent packing, together with the man found beaten half to death in the street and displayed in a window as a "warning".

This enjoyable and disquieting novel is not only a humorous parable about art and artists, "convinced that life is not real", or at least not real enough; it is also a subtle exploration of the links between artist, discontent, economic chaos and political brutality - a Walter Benjamin essay brought to fictional life.

At one point Grandfather on his tea-chest, "explaining", is explicitly compared to that other failed artist and tub-thumper, Adolf Hitler. Are lovable dreamers susceptible to the witchery of scapegoating (cf Ezra Pound)? Did ordinary Germans - "small people experiencing difficulties in their small lives" - drift into fascism from a legitimate feeling of despair? It's difficult to reconcile Grandfather's wisdom with his apparent political blindness. Or do such comfortable certainties only come with hindsight?

Written largely in dialogue, occasionally indebted to Beckett, told in a gossipy narrative voice that meanders backwards and forwards like someone chewing the fat in a pub, The Film Explainer gives a startling mix of insight and provocative historical reconstruction, seen lovingly from the inside.