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Review of Remembering Africa: The Rediscovery of Colonialism in Contemporary German Literature.


By Henning Melber

Remembering Africa: The Rediscovery of Colonialism in Contemporary German Literature. Dirk Göttsche. Camden House / Boydell& Brewer, , Rochester, NY /Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2013. Pp. 485. ISBN. 978-1-57113-546-9 (hb). £60.

Those assuming that German colonialism is a non-issue in contemporary Germany (and most likely many do) are taught differently through this fascinating, comprehensive, and most sensitive study. Its author is Professor of German at the University of Nottingham and he has managed to compile his profound earlier analyses, from almost a decade of several separately published articles, into one fundamental and pioneering stock-taking exercise, something hitherto unprecedented. It is a panorama unfolding, which hardly anyone would have expected.

Göttsche’s study “explores the highly productive interaction in contemporary German literature between the rediscovery of colonialism as an integral part of German history and renewed fascination with Africa” (p. 2). Some fifty novels published since the turn of the century “indicate that colonialism in Africa has become a major theme in contemporary German literature, reflecting a significant development” (p. 10). The analysis concentrates on the literary production representing the rediscovery of the colonial past in the present, while largely ignoring other trajectories in the continuing stream of (mainly romanticizing and exotic) novels, which indulge mainly with settings in contemporary Africa, thereby corresponding with a trend in popular (often bordering to the vulgar) series in commercial television.

While mainly concentrating on the works of the last 15 years, Göttsche does not forget to give the deserved credit to the earlier novel “Morenga” as the “pioneering work in the critical memorialisation of German colonialism” (p. 7). Published way ahead of the new trend in 1978 by Uwe Timm as the only narrative of its kind also translated into English, it “continues to act as a benchmark for the poetics and politics of postcolonial memory in German literature” (ibid.). It remains “an aesthetic benchmark in the literary discovery of colonialism … firmly rooted in the left-wing German student movement of the late 1960s” (p. 70). Rightly so, it is the work with the most references throughout the comparative analysis of this volume, which by doing so applies the best possible criteria for judging the standards of other subsequent efforts.

Refreshingly, Göttsche – by consequently applying such quality criteria – does not compromise his critical judgment when introducing more recent efforts claiming to represent a similar tradition of enlightened reflections. Most notably, he is honestly critical with the novel “Herero”, published in 2003 by the once most prominent cartoonist of the student movement Gerhard Seyfried. His “nostalgic obfuscation” (p. 412), bringing alive some kind of boy-scout romanticism, is admirably so revealed in no uncertain terms as “a form of cultural engagement with German colonialism that takes postcolonial criticism for granted and invites readers to indulge yet again in African exoticism, colonial fantasies, and historical nostalgia”, thus raising “the prospect of a literary memory of colonialism beyond postcolonialism” (p. 90).

As in most other examples, including the sensible and open-minded ones, the seemingly postcolonial has not really transcended the colonial. Rather, Göttsche “found ample evidence that the established ambivalence in German discourses about Africa continues despite explicit criticism of colonial rule and thought” (p. 413). Many novels continue to oscillate between colonial clichés – even while seeking narrative strategies to promote more differentiated and individualized representation: “Novels angled at the bestseller market of literary entertainment clearly continue to draw on the lure of imaginary escape from the pressures of modernity into the perceived ‘paradise’ of tropical exoticism, the promise of unfettered colonial adventure, the excitement of an alleged closeness to ‘original’ nature, both in the wildlife and countryside and in the culture of the ‘native’ Africans encountered by the German protagonists.” (p. 413)

Given the avalanche of fiction (at times complemented by titles claiming to be non-fiction but hardly less imaginary) by female authors with the narrative located in an African setting, Göttsche diagnoses a “shift from the male heroes of colonial novels to the female protagonists of recent works”, often inadvertently re-enacting the “myth of a ‘better colonialism’ (Sartre’s term) which history failed to give a chance to develop” (p. 416). But despite a willingness to even concede the possibly best of intentions by these authors, one has to agree with Göttsche: “In a universe of global communication, exchange and migration, which nevertheless continues to be marked by serious imbalances in power, prosperity, participation and opportunities, the imagination of adventures in exotic terrain and the exoticist othering of Africans lose their innocence. Replicating patterns of perception and discursive practices that are ultimately colonial in origin, they raise ethical issues along with political concerns.” (p. 419)

In the midst of my enthusiasm welcoming such engagement, I noted with some minor regret that Göttsche made only in passing a short reference to the novel “The Other Side of Silence” published originally in 2002 by the South African writer André Brink (- on the other hand: at least he did!). While being a prominent author with a German audience, Brink’s long-standing German publisher refused to translate this engagement with German colonialism in South West Africa. Instead, another much smaller publishing house finally did so in 2008. The novel is markedly distinct from the German fiction and it would have been of interest to devote some more thoughts on this than merely the observation that the “use of poignantly grotesque brutality in the blending of colonial violence and violence against women are (to date) without parallel in German literature” (p. 132).

The merit of Göttsche’s comprehensive study includes his engagement also with the literary production on this subject by authors from the former German Democratic Republic and an exploration of their genre within the official anti-racist and anti-imperialist discourse imposed by the then dominant political correctness. But another regrettable omission is the several noteworthy books by Jürgen Leskien published over a quarter of a century (not least the latest, the complementing but also contrasting “Dunkler Schatten Waterberg – Afrikanische Nachtgespräche[1]” of 2004 as a very interesting example of the complications when mixing personal interaction with literary fiction) which are not acknowledged at all. The overall value of Göttsche’s work is however hardly reduced and not at all in question, though the question remains why he did overlook this oeuvre.

Driven by his eloquent commitment, maybe at times a bit too repetitive and redundant, Göttsche hammers home an important message, namely that meaning well is not necessarily good enough as an excuse for participating in continued ideological blunder, which despite (or maybe even because of) all eagerness creeps in and still promotes biased values along the we-they divide. German dominant culture is rather reinforced instead of fundamentally questioned by most of these narratives, which ultimately risk re-assuring an open-minded paternalism. This might be anything but specifically German and not too different from most literary products published by authors in other former colonial powers. But it is the first time that through this systematic study such insights are shared with a wider audience, and even in a more widely accessible language. It makes fascinating reading and allows a trip into a current German trajectory hardly acknowledged as part of a dominant culture.

[1]  Which translates as “Dark Shadow Waterberg - Colonial Night Talks”

Reviewed by: Henning Melber, Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation / University of Pretoria / University of the Free State.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 75 (Winter 2013/14), pp. 123-126]

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