Abu Telfan

[This page by Dagmar Paulus]

Abu Telfan oder Die Rückkehr vom Mondgebirge (1867)

Abu Telfan, or Return from the Mountains of the Moon

Wenn ihr wüsstet, was ich weiß, sprach Mahomet, so würdet ihr viel weinen und wenig lachen.


If you knew what I know, said Mahomet, you would weep much and laugh little.

In this novel, Raabe tells the story of a young man, Leonhard Hagebucher, returning home to his small native village, Bumsdorf, after having spent several years as a slave amongst an African tribe in (so-called) ‘Tumurkieland’. At first, his unexpected return is greeted with general celebration and enthusiasm but soon enough problems arise when Leonhard’s refusal to take on a position as a magistrate is met with indignation from the part of the bourgeois inhabitants of the village. Generally Leonhard finds it hard to come to terms with his new old life:

Das innigste und eifrigste Bestreben, mit dem Gefühl, dem Verstande, der Vernunft, der Phantasie, mit dem süßesten Ahnungsvermögen den Dingen der Heimat wieder beizukommen, hatte sich als ein nichtiges, sehr vergebliches Abquälen erwiesen.


All his heartfelt and eager attempts to reaccustom himself to his home country, using all his feeling, his wit and rationality, his imagination and sweetest sensitivity, had turned out to be an inane and very futile agony.

As a response to the general public disapproval, Leonhard’s father evicts his son from the family home. A speech held by Leonhard in the neighbouring town on his experiences in Africa ends in public outrage when he puts life as a slave in the wilderness on a level with his existence among the orderly populace of Bumsdorf. Only the young educated aristocrat Nikola von Einstein and Leonhard’s uncle Wassertreter show their support for him. Nikola also struggles to find her place in society, and Wassertreter who as a student was affected by the Carlsbad Decrees (Karlsbader Beschlüsse, repressive measures which came into force in 1819) lets Leonhard live in his house. The rebellious spirit in each of the three, however, is gradually quenched: Nikola, after escaping from a tedious marriage, withdraws to an isolated life in the Katzenmühle (literally: ‘The Cat Mill’), a small house in the countryside. Wassertreter succumbs to alcohol, and even Hagebucher eventually considers settling down to a bourgeois existence:

[...] gehen wir heim und unterwerfen wir uns den Dingen, Verhältnissen und Verhängnissen, da wir doch nicht um unsern Willen gefragt werden.


Let’s go home and submit to the conditions and circumstances that are our doom since we won’t be asked what we want anyway.

The motif of homecoming (Heimkehr), is very frequent in Raabe. Often, the search of a character for their roots is also a quest for their identity, such as in Raabe’s last novel Altershausen. In Abu Telfan, Hagebucher’s attempts to reintegrate into society after his long absence fail. At the same time, however, his position as an outsider allows him to perceive his surroundings in a very direct and relentless way. Overall, the novel can be seen as a criticism of the narrow-mindedness, pettiness and intolerance often associated with the Nachmärz period in Germany after the failed revolution of 1848. The ironic opposition of the fictitious African country and the German province calls into question the values of bourgeois society.

Another of Raabe’s novels that also features the motif of homecoming (Heimkehr), Stopfkuchen, contains a direct link to Abu Telfan, the boat on which the narrator travels home to South Africa being named after the main character Leonhard Hagebucher.

Further Reading

Michel Gnéba Kokora, ‘Die Ferne in der Nähe: Zur Funktion Afrika in Raabe’s “Abu Telfan” und Stopfkuchen”’, Jahrbuch der Raabe-Gesellschaft (1994), 54-69

Ernest Schonfield, ‘Moonstone and “Mondgebirge”: Exile and Identity in Wilhelm Raabe and Wilkie Collins’, in Wilhelm Raabe: Global Themes – International Perspectives, ed. by Dirk Göttsche and Florian Krobb (Oxford: Legenda, 2009), pp. 138-48