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Freedom in a Frying Pan : Nazi Hamburg in the last days of World War II : THE INVENTION OF CURRIED SAUSAGE, By Uwe Timm . Translated from German by Leila Vennewitz (New Directions: $19.95; 217 pp.)

June 04, 1995|RICHARD EDER

Against the sword: rust. Against the armed zeal of autocracy: the corrosions of human inertia and the human finagle. Around the outset of World War I, the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek inserted Corporal Schweik, a paladin of rust, into Austro-Hungary's arthritic imperial parade. The German writer Uwe Timm inserts Lena, a heroine of rust, into Nazi Hamburg in the last days of World War II.

Rust is an oxygen process; a breath of fresh air, you might say. "The Invention of Curried Sausage," a witty, sharp-voiced and moving bit of semi-fiction--sentimental, too, in places--lets air into an oxygen-starved zone of the past. German history of the mid-century has its legions of Nazi villains, a platoon or two of heroic resisters, and the vast uncharted company of those who got along as most people get along in dictatorships. They survived, they complied; they did and spoke more than necessary on the beast's behalf, or sometimes less; and they kept their thoughts to themselves and often from themselves.

The silence of the past oppresses the present, in history as in therapy. Timm, middle-aged in the 1990s, seeks a voice, a visage in the murk of ordinary German life in the 1930s and '40s. He finds it in a blind, 80-year-old woman, whom he traces to a nursing home. She is no common voice, she is a star; but starlight, unable to lighten the darkness, gives it a faint intelligibility.

Timm had met Lena Brucker, his aunt's upstairs neighbor, when he was a child just after the war. Growing up, he patronized the crude stand in Hamburg's harbor district where she sold pungent sausage fried in a cast-iron pan with curry powder, ketchup and pepper. Curried sausage was a postwar fast-food fad throughout northern Germany--it stopped at the Main River, south of which Bavaria's bland weisswurst took over--and there was a Hamburg rumor that Lena had invented it.

There are foods that are more than food. They are the past and, more than the past, they are an identity, or perhaps a wished-for identity. Curried sausage, in Timm's part-fictional account of his search for Lena Brucker and her life, stands for his vision of a German tradition different from both the Nazi past and the overstuffed present. It is proletarian, irreverent, skeptical and spirited: the Hamburg tradition, in other words; a North Sea socialism.

"This is the genuine article," Lena used to say, dishing out the sausage on crimped paper plates. "Has something to do with the wind. Believe me. With a cold wind you need hot stuff."

Timm, whose writing is spare and immensely present--it is captured by Leila Vennewitz, one of our finest German translators--alternates between his visits to Lena and the story she tells. Frail, she is as independent as ever, refusing to move from her partial housekeeping arrangement into full nursing care.

By touch she makes coffee and serves it; by touch she manages forkfuls of the rich cakes that she requests for each visit; by touch she knits a sweater pattern, asking Timm's advice on when to start the tree branches, when the sun, when the little cloud that nibbles it. At first she hesitates to claim the sausage invention; then she does claim it, but adds that nobody believes it. Delicately, Timm conveys old age's gradual relinquishing. The truth you know defers to the disbelief of others.

The sausage saga comes at the end; before it comes the story out of which it grows. It is the last month of the war; the British have reached the Elbe and are no longer bombing the bridges they now intend to cross. The population is war-weary. There are true believers, but most are simply trying to get by, listening impassively to radio exhortations to turn Hamburg into another Stalingrad.

There is the splendid account of the cook at the Food Ministry canteen where Lena works. A former chef on the liner "Bremen," he conducts a resistance campaign, literally from the inside. Visiting Nazi lecturers are treated to lunch and then feel too queasy to speak. When the cook worked at the radio station, each time the announcers had a victory to report they were taken ill in mid-announcement. Timm tells us, parenthetically, that he has heard a tape of one such incident:

"The announcer starts to gag at the words 'our victorious paratroopers'; after the word 'Crete' comes an acoustic gap, the microphone is briefly switched off by the announcer, then comes a belched 'captured' followed by sounds of vomiting. End of broadcast."

Lena is not a resister, but, as the daughter of an old Socialist, she befriends the chef--against whom nothing is ever quite proved--and has no use for either the Nazis or the war. She is in her 40s, still attractive and takes wartime pains to stay so. Her husband, a handsome womanizer, has been away on the Eastern Front for six years and she doesn't miss him.

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