[This page by Seán Williams]
Thomas Hettche is a German author who divides his time between Berlin and Switzerland. He has picked up regional literary prizes in Germany, Switzerland as well as Austria, and has made the shortlist for the German Book Prize twice: once in 2006 with the novel Woraus wir gemacht sind (translated into English as What we are made of in 2008), and again in 2014 with the novel Pfaueninsel (‘Peacock Island’).
Hettche began his literary career by writing self-consciously high-brow works such as his debut novel Ludwig muß sterben (‘Ludwig must die’) in 1989, which weaves the historical diary entries of a sixteenth-century doctor into the narrative. Hettche went on to write short stories, another novel (Nox, 1995), and he showed both a literary and an intellectual flair for essays. His long cultural-historical essay Animationen (‘Animations’,1999), for example, was accepted as a doctoral dissertation at the Goethe University, Frankfurt as well as published for the general public (and reprinted in 2008).
His prose took a more populist turn when he started writing for the cultural sections of German and Swiss national newspapers in the 1990s (mainly the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung), and with his detective novel Der Fall Arbogast in 2001 (translated into English as The Arbogast Case in 2003). Together with contemporary authors Martin R. Dean, Matthias Politycki, and Michael Schindhelm, Hettche published the manifesto ‘Was soll der Roman?’ (‘And what about the novel?’) in the German national broadsheet Die Zeit in 2005, playing on the Neue Mitte (‘middle way’) political movement and arguing for both the literary and social relevance of the novel form for the mainstream. But Hettche’s crime fiction still made use of historical material — and the empirical legal case of Hans Hetzel. Two novels (Woraus wir gemacht sind; What we are made of (2008) and Die Liebe der Väter; Fatherly love (2010)) and collections of essays followed, to widespread acclaim, before he published Pfaueninsel (‘Peacock Island’, 2014).
Pfaueninsel (‘Peacock Island’, 2014)
Pfaueninsel is Hettche’s sixth novel, and his second set on an island: Die Liebe der Väter (Fatherly love, 2010) tells of a father and daughter’s trip to Sylt. Peacock Island, like Sylt, is a German island, though an inland one — in the river Havel, Berlin. Back in 1793, the Prussian king Frederick William II took over Peacock Island as a summer residence, building a castle for his and his mistress’s pleasure. The subsequent king, Frederick William III, had the island made into a model farm, menagerie and tourist attraction for Berlin residents (a sort of precursor to Berlin Zoo). On this island lived a woman of smaller stature, or a “dwarf”, Maria Dorothea Strakon and her similarly small brother, who both came to the island as children under the king’s care. They remained there for most of the nineteenth century. Little else is known about them. Hettche imagines their, and particularly “Marie’s”, story.
Hettche first wrote about Peacock Island in 1993, when he reflected on a visit there for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. His novel over twenty years later is a mix of historical accuracy, imaginative sympathy with the outsiders of history, as well as quite sad, almost pornographic scenes (including incest). There is sex, jealousy, exploitation, lost love, revenge — and dramatic death.
Pfaueninsel is a novel that is as eventful and full of social, historical commentary as it is an intellectual exercise. “Marie” was born at the turn of the nineteenth century; orphaned as a young child, she and her brother were sent to be part of the king’s toy island as entertainment. Around 1800 was the very end of the era for “court dwarves”; Marie arrived at Peacock Island to play the part of its Schloßfräulein. (‘little mistress of the castle’). Pfaueninsel thus charts the changes in the way dwarves were perceived over the course of the nineteenth century: from curiosities at court, taken on at the whim of the aristocracy but already a bit arcane around 1800, to being thought of as “monsters” or viewed as exotic creatures, like the caged animals in public menageries from weird and wonderful corners of the world.
Hettche also embeds his story in a literary tradition of island narratives: Marie reads Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), among other novels in which islands feature prominently. And Hettche attempts to place Pfaueninsel into a philosophical tradition, too: Marie and Gustav debate Rousseau (who spent two months on St Peter’s Island in a Swiss lake) as well as Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, an idea which is now generally thought to have been influenced by revolution in the island state of Haiti around 1800.
What’s more, Pfaueninsel can be read alongside two recent literary heavyweights of the German tradition: Daniel Kehlmann and Günter Grass. First, Kehlmann’s 2005 novel Die Vermessung der Welt (translated into English as Measuring the World the following year) popularised the early 19th century and its world views in contemporary German literature: Kehlmann’s main characters were the German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and the German geographer and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Alissa Walser then made the career of the Viennese doctor Franz Anton Mesmer from the closing third of the 18th century into a literary masterpiece in 2010. The title of Walser’s novel plays on Mesmer’s main patient’s blindness, and her acquaintance with Mozart: Am Anfang war die Nacht Musik (literally: ‘In the beginning, the night was music’). Hettche continues such historical fiction that centres on the changing world around 1800, which Reinhard Koselleck has termed the transition period of history (or ‘Sattelzeit’). However, Hettche does so not from the perspective of history’s canonical men of learning, letters or medicine, but from the margins of society (and a female dwarf in particular). Second, in the 1959 novel Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) by Nobel prize-winning author Günter Grass, the main character Oskar Matzerath lives through the tumultuous turns of the twentieth century. He experiences both World War II and postwar Europe, and remains child-sized throughout. Grass’s Oskar is an obvious literary model for Hettche’s Marie.
Pfaueninsel, therefore, is accessible to the general reader as a moving story set on what is still a tourist attraction today. But it is all the more intriguing for those of us who have read, or are interested in reading, more of the canonical works of especially German literature and thought.
Hettche’s most recent novel is Herzfaden, Roman der Augsburger Puppenkiste (Heart Threads: The Augsburg Puppet Theatre, 2020), which examines West Germany history with reference to a famous puppet theatre in Augsburg in Bavaria, whose television productions are familiar to generations of West Germans.
Further Reading in German
Sonja Arnold, ‘Zwei utopische Inseln der Weltliteratur. João Ubaldo Ribeiros Das Wunder der Pfaueninsel und Thomas Hettches Pfaueninsel im transnationalen Vergleich’, Zeitschrift für interkulturelle Germanistik 7 (2016), 81-96
Web Links in German
Author’s homepage, with excerpts, essays and transcripts of literary prize
Online map of Peacock Island, and audio excerpts from the novel
‘Was soll der Roman?’ (2005) (‘And what about the novel?’) [manifesto]
Review of Hettche’s most recent novel (2020)