Also Reading: BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ, by Alfred Doblin

From the foreword by the author:

He throws in the towel, he has no idea what day of the week it is, it seems all up with him.

Before he can make an end, however, his blindness is taken from him in a way I do not describe here. His fault is revealed to him in the clearest terms. It is indeed his, the fault of his plan, which may once have looked sensible enough to him, but now looks quite different, not unexceptionable and straightforward, but full of arrogance and ignorance, and further vitiated with impertinence, cowardice and weakness.

The terrible thing that was his life acquires a purpose. A medical cure has been performed on Franz Biberkopf. And in the end we see our man back on Alexanderplatz, greatly changed, considerably the worse for wear, but straightened out.

To see and hear this will be worthwhile for many readers who, like Franz Biberkopf, fill out a human skin, but, again like Franz Biberkopf, happen to want more from life than a piece of bread.

Quote of the Day: Virgil

Sentence of the Day: Benjamin Labatut

According to the night gardener, the Mapuche Indians would crush the skeletons of their vanquished enemies and spread that dust on their farms as fertilizer, always working in the dead of night, when the trees are fast asleep, for they believed that some of them — the canelo and the araucaria, the monkey puzzle — could see into a warrior’s soul, steal his deepest secrets and spread them through the shared roots of the forest, where plush tendrils whispered to pale mushroom mycelium, ruining his standing before the community.

When We Cease to Understand the World, p. 182

In the Acknowledgments, Benjamin Labatut describes When We Cease to Understand the World as “a work of fiction based on real events. The quantity of fiction grows throughout the book; whereas Prussian Blue contains only one fictional paragraph, I have taken greater liberties in the subsequent texts, while still trying to remain faithful to the scientific concepts discussed in each of them.”

Wow, just wow.

Shattered: Essay # 1, Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease To Understand the World

Self finds that so many of the books she’s read this year have a bearing. For instance, the book she started the year with: My Heart, a translation from the Bosnian by Semezdin Mehmehdinovic. The author is one of those displaced immigrants who cannot feel at home, not here in America, even though he has raised a son who is so very American in his nonchalance.

And All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, by Rebecca Donner, about Donner’s great great-aunt Mildred Harnack, who was part of a plot against Hitler and was executed in 1942.

Essay # 1 in her current read, Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World, is about Fritz Haber, the brilliant Jewish chemist who directed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry and is credited with the invention of Zyklon.


  • Haber had converted to Christianity at twenty-five years old. He identified so closely with his country and its customs that his sons knew nothing of their ancestry until he told them they would have to flee Germany. Haber escaped after them and sought asylum in England, but his British colleagues scorned him, aware of his instrumental role in chemical warfare. He had to leave the island not after arriving. Thenceforth, he would travel from country to country in the hope of reaching Palestine, his chest gripped with pain, his arteries incapable of delivering sufficient blood to his heart. He died in Basle in 1934, clutching the canister of nitroglycerine he needed to dilate his coronary vessels, not knowing that, years later, the Nazis would use in their gas chambers the pesticide he had helped create to murder his half-sister, his brother-in-law, his nephews and countless other Jews who died hunkered down, muscles cramping, skin covered with red and green spots, bleeding from their ears, spitting foam from their mouths, the young ones crushing the children and the elderly as they attempted to scale the heap of naked bodies and breathe a few more minutes, a few more seconds, because Zyklon B tended to pool on the floor after being dropped through hatches in the roof.

The Gas (Sarin, Mustard and Chlorine)

The North Americans had enormous reserves ready for deployment, and the British had experimented with anthrax on a remote Scottish island, massacring flocks of sheep and goats.

* * * *

The first gas attack in history overwhelmed the French troops entrenched near the small town of Ypres, in Belgium. When they awoke on the morning of Thursday, April 22, 1915, the soldiers saw an enormous greenish cloud creeping towards them across no-man’s land. Twice as high as a man and as dense as winter fog, it stretched from one end of the horizon to the other, as far as the eye could see. The leaves withered on the trees as it passed, birds fell dead from the sky; it tinged the pastureland a sickly metallic colour . . . Six thousand canisters of chlorine gas” were released that morning at Ypres.

When We Cease to Understand the World, pp. 24 – 25

How Blondi Met Her End Along With Her Master

TRIGGER WARNING: ANIMAL CRUELTY because Führer was a tool; and also CYANIDE PILLS

Goring, Goebbels, Bormann and Himmler used these capsules to commit suicide, but many of the Nazi leaders chose to shoot themselves in the head at the same moment they bit down, afraid that they had been sabotaged, that the capsules were deliberately adulterated to provoke not the painless, instant death they desired but the slow agony they deserved. Hitler became so convinced that his dosage had been tampered with that he chose to test its effectiveness on his beloved Blondi, a German shepherd that had accompanied him to the Führerbunker, where she slept at the foot of his bed, enjoying privileges of all kinds. The Führer preferred killing his pet to letting her fall into the hands of Russian troops who had already surrounded Berlin and were inching closer to his subterranean refuge by the minute, but he was too cowardly to do it himself; he asked his personal doctor to break one of the capsules into the animal’s mouth. The dog — who had just given birth to four puppies — died instantly when the miniscule cyanide molecule, formed by one atom of nitrogen, one of carbon and one of potassium, entered her bloodstream and cut off her breath.

When We Cease to Understand the World, p. 13

This is a fascinating book.

Stay tuned.

Poetry Friday: “Inventory” by Günter Eich

found in Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945 – 1955, by Harald Jahner


by Günter Eich

This is my cap,
This is my coat,
here are my shaving things
in their linen case.

In the bread bin are
a pair of woollen socks
and some things that I
will reveal to no one.

This is my notebook,
this is my strip of canvas,
this is my towel.
this is my thread.

Beginning AFTERMATH: LIFE IN THE FALLOUT OF THE THIRD REICH, 1945 – 1955, by Harald Jahner

Recommended by The Economist.

From the Preface:

  • Even though books like Anne Frank’s Diary or Eugen Kogon’s SS-State disrupted the process of repression, it was only with the Auschwitz trials beginning in 1963 that many Germans began to reckon with the crimes that had been committed in their name.

It is Harald Jahner’s first book.

Never even heard of the book SS-State! Must look up Eugen Kogon.

Stay tuned.

Poetry Sunday: Miguel Hernandez’s A Man-Eating Knife

A few days ago, self went to downtown Palo Alto, to Landmark Aquarius on Emerson, to watch Pedro Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers. Penelope Cruz is excellent as always. A gamine young actress named Milena Smit is a real scene-stealer.

In honor of the film’s subject, she’s quoting from Miguel Hernandez’s A Man-Eating Knife (in a translation by Don Share)

Where can I be
that I will not find loss?
Your destiny is the beach,
my calling is the sea.

Miguel Hernandez died in a Spanish prison at the age of thirty-one. Below, an excerpt from Octavio Paz’s Remember That Voice, written in memory of Hernandez from Mexico City, November 1942. The translation is by Eliot Weinberger.

Miguel Hernandez has died in prison in the village where he was born. He has died alone in a hostile Spain, the enemy of a Spain where he spent his youth, the antagonist of a Spain that rang out with his generosity. Let others curse his torturers, let others study and analyze his poetry. I want to remember him as he was.

I first saw him in 1937, singing Spanish folk songs. He had a deep voice, somewhat ragged, somewhat like an innocent animal: he sounded like the countryside, like a low echo in the valleys, like a stone falling into a ravine.

January Reads: A Comparison of Now and Then


  • My Heart: A Novel, by Semezdin Mehmedinovic, translated from the Bosnian by Celia Hawkesworth
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the verse translation by Simon Armitage
  • All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, by Rebecca Donner
  • Castle Shade, #17 in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, by Laurie R. King
  • How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning of the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith


  • Women Without Men: A Novel of Modern Iran, by Sharnush Parsipur
  • The Relentless Moon, #3 in the Lady Astronaut Series, by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, by Reed Hastings with Erin Meyer
  • High as the Waters Rise, by Anja Kampmann, translated from the German by Anne Posten

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