Book Review by Sam Slaughter
by Ernst Haffner (translated by Michael Hoffman)
Other Press, 2015
165 pages, $14.95
The story of author Ernst Haffner seems like a novel. A German journalist and social worker, he published Blood Brothers, his only novel, in 1932. The work was celebrated and subsequently banned by the Nazis a year later. When World War II started, any and all traces of Haffner were lost. It’s said he was summoned before the Reichsschrifttumskammer, a Third Reich writer’s union, but nothing is known beyond that.
Originally titled Jugend auf der Landstrasse Berlin [Youth on the Road to Berlin , Haffner’s only novel follows the lives of a gang of latchkey boys, “The Blood Brothers,” as they attempt to navigate the difficult, poverty-stricken cards they’ve been dealt. Not only must they figure out where to sleep and what to eat, but they must avoid the corrupt legal system that is out to get them. Weary of selling their bodies to older men, the gang turns to robbery to make a living, starting with pickpocketing and gradually working bigger cons, culminating in stealing cars and selling them in other cities. When two of the boys, Willi and Ludwig, decide leave the gang, they skip off in an attempt to start a more legitimate business—buying used shoes and reselling them for profit. This works out for them, as the gang is caught and prosecuted.
Haffner’s prose shows his background as a journalist with his succinct yet visceral sentences. “The crowd is milling around, growing all the time. At the core of the disturbance are a prostitute and her pimp. He is laying into the woman with both fists…She looks like a beast in a slaughterhouse.” Haffner hovers just beyond the shoulders of his characters and this allows for myriad details (all told in direct and oftentimes stark prose) such as when he describes the warming halls where the poor spend their days: “The hall is painted in the favorite colors of Berlin welfare organizations: gray-green distemper, with dark-green gloss.” The reportage also gives Haffner the space to inject opinion into the matters at hand. It’s easy to hear the Teutonic, Werner Herzogian voiceover describing the scenes presented in the novel.
Perhaps a comment on the conditions of the time or the author’s wish to focus on this gang of boys, the only female characters that show up are prostitutes or matrons of places that down-on-their-luck people can spend a night on the cheap. Mothers are mostly absent, creating a heightened feeling that there is no place for these boys to go back. They are adrift in a despondant world with no hope in their future.
Blood Brothers is a short novel that accomplishes an incredible amount in only 165 pages. Haffner utilizes parataxis to convey the thoughts, feelings, and actions of numerous characters without confusing or muddling the text. Perhaps the saddest thing is that Haffner disappeared, never to write another novel again.
 According to translator Michael Hoffman, “’Landstrasse Berlin’ conflates the idea of the city, Berlin, and the allegory of the road as the course of human life.
Sam Slaughter is a fiction writer based in Central Florida. He serves in various editorial capacities for Atticus Review, Entropy, and Black Heart Magazine. He’s had work published in Midwestern Gothic, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Heavy Feather Review, among others. His debut chapbook, When You Cross That Line, was published in May 2015. He loves playing with puppies and drinking good bourbon.