Liars good and bad

Thursday 24 July 2008

In his book The Lost Sea (1957), Dutch novelist Jan de Hartog tells of a young lad shanghaied to work as a cabin boy on a fishing boat sailing the Zuider Zee. During one evening in port, the sailors invite a Liar aboard:
I had heard about the Liars before, but I had never been very interested in them, for they never did anything real; they just sat down in a circle of people and told lies. I had never seen one because for some reason all  Liars were Urkers. Kris told me more about them; he said they were very funny because they told impossible stories about mermen ringing at midwives’ doors at night to get help for their mermaid-wives who were having a child, about turtles in China so big that whole gardens grew on their backs, about sea monsters with seven heads, and the skinning of Eskimo women. The funny thing about these stories was that the Liars told them as if all this had happened to them personally; they never told a story in the third person, but always began: ‘One day when I was in Tasmania,’ although everybody knew that they had never been out  of the Zuider Zee.
Like the boy in the book, the author was also a cabin boy on a sailing ship at the age of ten, but that doesn’t mean he claimed that The Lost Sea was a true story. On the contrary, Jan de Hartog was proud to call himself a Liar.

It’s a curious thing that as a species we have such a desire for lies. Lies hold pride of place in bookshops. In popular cinema it’s nearly all lies. Even when a film is based on some truth, a dramatisation is always more successful than a straight documentary. Art is a lie that tells the truth? No, art tells lies about the truth.

So if you’re looking for history, perhaps you shouldn’t turn to a renowned  Liar. Certainly that would seem good advice after reading some reviews and comments on novelist Nicholson Baker’s strange sounding history of the Second World War, Human Smoke.

While I don’t think I’ll have either the time or the inclination to pick that one up, there is a non fiction book by one of my favourite Liars that I would like to recommend, Erich Kästner’s memoir When I Was a Little Boy (also 1957), a book about childhood written for children.

Kästner was born in 1899 in Dresden, which he describes as follows:
If it is correct to say that I can not only judge of what is horrible and ugly but also of what is beautiful, I attribute this gift to my good fortune in having grown up in Dresden. I did not have to learn first out of books what is beautiful, neither at school nor at the University. I could breathe in beauty as foresters’ children breathe in woodland air. The Catholic Hofkirche, Georg Bähr’s Frauenkirche, the Zwinger, Pillnitz Castle, the Japanese Palace, the Jüdenhof and the Dinglingerhaus, theRampische Strasse with its baroque façades, the Renaissance windows of the Schloss Strasse, the Cosel Palace, the Palace in the Grosser Garten with the Little Houses of the Cavaliers and, looking down from the Loschwitzhöhe, the vista of the city in silhouette, with its noble and venerable towers... But really there is not much sense in reciting the glories that were Dresden like the multiplication table.

I could not describe even a chair so accurately that Kunze the carpenter could reproduce it in his workshop from my description. How then could I hope to describe Schloss Moritzburg with its four round towers reflected in the water, or that sculptured vase by the Italian Corradini near the Palace Pond, almost opposite the Café Pollender; or the Kronentor of the Zwinger? I can see that I shall have to ask the artist to please make a special set of drawings for this chapter so that you may get at least some faint idea of how beautiful my native city was.


Yes, Dresden was a wonderful city. You may take my word for it. And you have to take my word for it, because none of you, however rich your father may be, can go there to see if I am right. For the city of Dresden is no more. It has vanished, except for a few fragments. In one single night and with a single movement of its hand the Second World War wiped it off the map. It had taken centuries to create its incomparable beauty. A few hours sufficed to spirit it off the face of the earth. This happened on the night of February 13th, 1945. Eight hundred planes rained down high explosive and incendiary bombs on it. When they had gone, nothing remained but a desert with a few giant ruins which looked like ocean liners heeling over.

Two years later I stood in the midst of that endles desert and could not make out where I was. Among the broken, dust-covered bricks lay the name-plate of a street - ‘Prager Strasse’, I deciphered with difficulty. Could it be that I was standing in the Prager Strasse, the world-famous Prager Strasse, the most magnificent street of my childhood? The street with the loveliest shop windows? The most wonderful street at Christmas-time? I was standing in a waste half a mile long by half a mile wide, a desert of broken bricks and rubble and utter desolation.

To this day the Governments of the great Powers are disputing with each other as to who murdered Dresden. To this day people are arguing as to whether fifty thousand, a hundred thousand or two hundred thousand lie dead under that desert of nothingness. And none of them will admit having done it: each says it was the fault of the others. Ah, but what is the use of quarreling about it? You will not bring Dresden back to life by so doing - neither its beauty nor its dead. Punish the Governments in future and not the people. And don’t punish them afterwards. Punish them at once. Does this sound simpler than it is? No, it is simpler than it sounds.

I have beside me a Danish translation of Notabene 45, Kästner's wartime diary. I don’t believe it’s ever been translated into English. It tells in one part of how his parents lived through the bombing of Dresden while he was in a cellar in Berlin sheltering from a raid there, following dry radio announcements with a co-ordinate map called ‘Square-Else’ where each square had a name, and hearing more and more clearly that the bomber formations were approaching the square on the map ‘Martha Heinrich’. There was no telephone contact with Dresden after the raid. A travel ban was decreed. It was over a week later that he first heard from them. They were alive and well. But there was more news:
Berlin 27 February 1945


Yesterday evening Orthmann’s courier came with frightful news. Dresden is said to have been wiped out. The fire from the burning town hall sucked in people who were fleeing from Waisenhausstrasse, through the air into the flames, as if they were moths. Others were to have jumped into the reservoirs to save themselves, but the water boiled and they were scalded like crabs. Tens of thousands of corpses lay between and below the ruins. And my parents live! Sorrow, indignation and gratitude rattle together in my heart. Like locomotives in fog.

Roman generals threw themselves, face to face with the unavoidable defeat, onto their own sword. A suicide like that by foreign hand is being committed by the third reich. The third reich is ending its days. But the corpse is called Germany.

Related: all my posts on Erich Kästner are here, and on Jan de Hartog here, and on WWII revisionism here.

Elsewhere: Deborah Lipstadt about Liars and liars on Dresden, here and here, and Francis Sedgemore has a little bundle of posts on the importance of Liars linked to here.

The Lost Sea is copyright © 1957 by Jan de Hartog.

When I Was a Little Boy is copyright © 1957 by Atrium Verlag A. G. Zürich, English version copyright © 1959 by Jonathan Cape Ltd. London, translated from German by Isabel and Florence McHugh.

The drawings are by Horst Lemke, Kästner’s regular illustrator following the death of Walter Trier.

Quote from Notabene 45 is my translation from the Danish edition, copyright © 1961 by Branner og Korchs Forlag A/S, Copenhagen.