Gallows Humour

By Norbert Ruebsaat | May 20, 2006

Hans-Georg Behr, Almost a Childhood (Granta Books, 324 p., U.S. $15.92, 2005)

An editor and friend told me to read Hans-Georg Behr’s Almost a Childhood and it was good advice: Behr remembers things I can’t imagine being able to remember, and I began, after reading him, to think about the relationship between memory and imagination in new ways. Behr stuttered in his—almost—childhood, and rather than speaking a lot (like all German and Austrian children of his and my era he was humiliated and punished when he stuttered) he kept a detailed written diary.

How detailed this diary was can only be imagined because the amount of detail in this memoir of war and immediate post-World War II experience in Austria and Germany, as witnessed by a child born in 1937, is monumental: reading the book is like walking through one of the memory cathedrals which the Catholic Church erected in post-Roman Europe in the hope of corralling the imagination of formerly heathen, oral, Germanic tribes into visual (read: silent) space commensurate with the Christian imperial enterprise (complete with its new liturgical mono soundtrack). I’m not kidding.

Behr recalls this imperial fiat as personal (read Catholic, Austrian) history in the way one imagines the condemned man in Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’ might recall his crimes as they are tattooed on his body by the penal instrument and its governing institution; so I’m not surprised Behr’s novel/memoir has been the greatest of hits in German-speaking lands. The English translation is slightly wooden and forfeits some of the original’s gallows humour because the English language, having never been defeated in a conventional war, does not easily register pathos: read it nonetheless.

283 w. May 20, 2006


  • Norbert Ruebsaat

    Norbert Ruebsaat teaches Media and Communication Studies at Columbia Collage and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver B.C. He publishes regularly in periodicals and newspapers, has produced documentaries for CBC Radio’s Ideas program, and has twice been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards in fiction and creative non-fiction.

Posted in:

More from Norbert Ruebsaat: