THE SILENCES OF HAMMERSTEIN by Hans Magnus Enzensberger

TheSilencesOfHammersteinOne problem for any kind of writer is what to do about that character, or that person, who is not very talkative. Fiction writers have more tools in their toolbox for dealing with this issue. After all, one can always write the story in the first-person point of view of the silent person, thus allowing ourselves the luxury of all of those interior monologues that go on inside the character’s head when they are sitting there, silent, exasperating all those other characters who do not have the author’s privileged access.

But what do you do when you are writing a biography of a person who was noted for his silences? General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord (1878-1943) served as Commander-in-Chief of the Reichswehr, and was famous for being a vehement opponent of Hitler and the Nazi regime. Strangely, he died in his bed, of cancer.

Perhaps his survival is due to the fact that, despite his loathing of Hitler, he wasn’t very communicative. He wasn’t in the habit of writing incriminating things down. And when he did speak, it was elliptically. He would turn to his second daughter, Marie-Therese and enunciate a list of names, just speaking them off. She knew well enough to understand that she was to get on her motorcycle and warn the people on his list (mostly Jews) that the Gestapo was after them.

During daily family gatherings, at the breakfast table, at the dinner table, KurtVonHammersteinHammerstein was noted for his silences. He never apparently spoke to his daughters about their political activities. Didn’t caution his eldest daughter Marie-Luise not to intervene on the behalf of Communist friends, nor admonish his third daughter Helga not to spy for the Soviet Union.

Which brings me back to my initial question, how do you write about such a person? Author Hans Magnus Enzensberger has come up with the novel solution of creating a collage. His biography reads more like a scrapbook that contains actual verified facts, suppositions, and imaginary interviews with his characters. Everything is clearly labeled so that the reader is aware of when they are slipping between facts and suppositions. But it creates a wonderfully complex, multi-layered portrait of a person, a family, a time and a place. What an imaginative solution to this problem! Five stars. A bookclub recommendation.





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