‘Whether it could be borne’ [book review]

A review of The Bureau of Past Management by Iris Hanika, translated from the German by Abigail Wender

The Bureau of Past Management doesn’t exist, but, after reading Iris Hanika’s excellent novel of the same name, I certainly wish it did. This vast institution at the heart of the German capital – nation, even – is dedicated to documenting the crimes of the Nazi period and contains within its labyrinthine structure three wonderful fictional characters: Hans Frambach, hero of the novel, and his colleagues, acid-tongued Frau Kermer and brassy Herr Marschner. Their petty squabbles and bureaucracy-laced interactions provide repeated opportunities for Hanika to give free rein to her razor-sharp irony, yet The Bureau of Past Management is not about the ins and outs of workplace relationships. (For this, read The Peacock, also published by V&Q Books.) Instead, it is about the Bureau’s so-called ‘memory work’, or collective guilt, a satirical yet sensitive exploration of Germany’s relationship with its own history.

Cover image The Bureau of Past Management

Shy, retiring and really quite depressed, Hans Frambach lives a fairly monotonous life working in the archives of the aforementioned Bureau. He has one friend, Graziela, and together they often discuss the deep-seated guilt that drives Hans to do his work and imbues almost every interaction he has with his home country. Travelling on the U-Bahn might remind him of the crowded trains that took thousands to Auschwitz; just hearing the word ‘birch’, Birke, might put him in mind of Birkenau. ‘They had discussed all of this, specifically how it could be endured and whether it could be borne,’ we are told within the opening pages of the novel, which then proceeds to unfold Hans’s ongoing struggle with the feelings he has, or thinks he ought to have, as the past begins to cloud his own experience of life and make it hard to unravel the source of his unhappiness.

It is a complex discussion, this, but fortunately one to which Hanika is more than equal. The tone adopted for The Bureau of Past Management (whose original title is the altogether more abstract Das Eigentliche, or The Essential) blends gentle wit with the sombre probing of a deep seam that runs through the German national consciousness. As someone who lives in Austria, I find this especially interesting; the past – this particular period of it – is dealt with quite differently in the two countries. Hanika does a fine job of bringing this guilt down to an individual level, with the rather flat, monotonous voice of the close third-person narrator conveying Hans’s terrible uncertainty about the country he lives in: ‘Really, he felt fine about Germany now. The public infrastructure functioned well, no one starved . . . corruption took place high up in executive suites . . . What more do you want.’ Unconvincing, to say the least, yet there is a sense that his feeling is perhaps a little extreme, that in his obsession with the past – and urge to atone for something that happened before he was born – he is making himself deliberately unhappy. At the same time, however, Hanika shows effectively that there simply is no way to escape the past. It lives with us every day, and we cannot, should not, ignore it.

The universality of this truth can be brought to bear on many other periods of history, and forces the reader to ask questions about what we ourselves may be ignoring in the creation of what will one day come to be called ‘the past’. It also throws up complex queries around happiness, memory and morality: do we have a duty to be happy? How can we make the future better at the same time as memorialising the past? Hans is not a protagonist to provide answers, and Graziela’s solution to the problem – to throw herself fully into the physical side of life by engaging in copious amounts of sex with a man who ends up treating her badly – is also not illuminating. But what Hanika has created here are two very human figures, whose efforts are frustrating and understandable in equal measure.

In her fascinating translator’s note at the end of the novel, Abigail Wender discusses the many complexities of rendering what is in essence a very German novel into English. She has succeeded masterfully in this regard – the glossed references she mentions are unnoticeable, a seamless part of the text, and non-German readers will have little difficulty understanding Hans’s predicament or the cultural forces that drive him. The novel is made additionally complicated by Hanika’s liberal use of quoted material and often obscure references (as Wender points out, this mirrors darkly the Nazi penchant for documenting everything), as well as structural idiosyncrasies such as thought fragments, sudden changes in narrative perspective, insertions of verse and entire pages that bear only the words ‘LEFT BLANK FOR NOTES’. The overall effect is peculiarly captivating, like sifting through a writer’s notepad or long lost box of mementoes. By contrast, the project Hans is engaged in for most of the novel – typing up the contents of a box containing a Holocaust survivor’s papers, which proves to consist of the same few lines written over and over – both mocks the earnestness with which the Bureau conducts its work and is a warning not to become inured to the past, numbing though it may sometimes feel. The human story behind those repetitive papers is brought out into the light at several points in the novel, reminding us that words on a page always have something behind them.

This short, fractured novel is an unusual one, yet it is wholly compelling and, bearing in mind the subject matter, unexpectedly easy to read. A light touch, deft characterisation, intellectual playfulness and the foundation of a complex moral matter seem to be the winning formula for a novel that both informs the reader and begs us to take Hanika’s line of thought further. Translated with great sensitivity by Abigail Wender, The Bureau of Past Management is absorbing and intelligent, amusing and painful, an inspired use of literature to explore the soul of a nation and ask questions that really matter.

The Bureau of Past Management by Iris Hanika, translated from the German by Abigail Wender, is published in paperback by V&Q Books. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

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