Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Currywurst and War

The Invention of Curried Sausage (Die Entdeckung der Currywurst)
by Uwe Timm

‘Today it is hard to form an even partly adequate idea of the extent of the devastation suffered by the cities of Germany in the last years of the Second World War,” laments Austrian writer W. G. Sebald—certainly no apologist for German atrocities—in a lecture he gave in Zurich called ‘Air War and Literature’, “still harder to think about the horrors involved in that devastation.” Indeed, from the spring of  1942 through the end of the war, the Allied Forces—most notably the English and Americans—carried out a veritable carpet bombing of German cities, destroying military and industrial targets in Hamburg, Cologne, and Wilhelmshaven before the English, under Churchill’s direction, expanded their campaign to include the total destruction of key German cities through the ‘terror bombing’ of their city centers and predominantly civilian populations, a nearly unprecedented tactic (see the German and Italian bombing of Guernica) that included the relentless fire-bombing of Bremen, Darmstadt, Berlin, Dresden, and Hamburg.  By the end of the war, more than two million tons of bombs had fallen on 131 German cities, some 600,00 Germans were dead, and a half a million left homeless. According to Sebald, the destruction was so extensive that “there were 31.1 cubic meters of rubble for every person in Cologne and 42.8 cubic meters for every inhabitant of Dresden.”

It is from out of the ruins of that same Germany that German author Uwe Timm has fashioned his charming and unlikely tale, The Invention of Curried SausageCurrywurst, a proletarian snack of sliced pork sausage in a curried tomato sauce,  has been a staple of German fast food since World War II.  As of 2009, it even has its own museum: the Deutsches Currywurst Museum in Berlin, “a sausage shrine dedicated to all things currywurst, including sausage sofas…”* The premise of The Invention of Curried Sausage is simple--and anything but tragic: not convinced that the popular dish was invented in Berlin by the housewife and “rubble woman,” Herta Charlotte Heuwer, on September 4, 1949, when she mixed together catsup, Worcestershire sauce, and some curry powder given her by a British soldier, author/narrator Uwe Timm sets out to track down what he believes are the dish’s true origins in his hometown of Hamburg. There he finds Lena Brücker, a food vendor he knew from childhood, now an old woman living out her final days in a retirement home. Through a series of tea-time visits, Timm patiently endures the old woman’s poignant, if sometimes meandering recollections of the war—some funny, some bittersweet—and finally manages to tease out the details of her miraculous invention.  

Defined by the author as a novella in the original sense of the word, meaning “ a little piece of news,” The Invention of Curried Sausage is more than that.  It is also a story about war and memory, about loneliness and compassion, and about the sometimes magical role of happenstance in life.  

Uwe Timm was born in Hamburg in 1940. He trained to be a furrier and went to college in Braunschweig. He graduated from high school in 1963, and went on to study Philosophy and German Literature in Munich and Paris. He was awarded his doctorate in philosophy in 1971. One of Germany's greatest contemporary writers and novelists, he now works in Munich and Berlin.**  He is perhaps best known in the States for his 1989 novel The Snake Tree. The Invention of Curried Sausage is published by New Directions .

* “The Craze Over Currywurst” The Wall Street Journal, August 27th, 2009

**Bloomsbury Publishing

Peter Adam Nash

1 comment:

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