Franz Fühmann was a prolific and important East German poet and writer whose own life was fascinating. Born in 1922, in the predominantly German Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, he was the son of an apothecary who fostered the development of an ardent German nationalism. After the annexation of Sudetenland in 1938, he volunteered for the Wehrmacht but was deemed to be too young so he joined the Reich Labour Service which performed construction work for the military. He saw little direct action until the end of the war when, between 1941 and 1943, he was deployed to various areas of Ukraine. Then, as Germany’s final retreat began, he was transferred to Greece, an experience that would later have a significant influence on his writing. In the closing days of the war he was captured by Soviet forces and would spend the next four years in a POW camp in the Caucasus.
Fühmann emerged from captivity passionately converted to the tenets of Soviet Socialism; he had rejected the Nazi ideology on which he had been raised and was dedicated to the vision of a new world view. He chose to settle in the GDR where his mother and sister were living. He would remain there for the rest of his life, working solely as a freelance writer from the early 1950s until his death in 1984, but his conviction to the realist approach to poetry and literature favoured by the government soon wavered, as his writings grew increasingly confrontational and, to the Stasi, suspect. He would, however, go on to produce work in a wide variety of genres, for both adults and children, and became an important advocate for the translation and publication of authors previously banned in East Germany and a mentor for younger non-conforming writers like Wolfgang Hilbig and Uwe Kolbe.
I have previously reviewed Fühmann’s story cycle The Jew Car, which offers a fictionalized account of his childhood and war years, and his magnificent final major work At the Burning Abyss, a meditation on poetry—in particular that of Georg Trakl—and its power to speak to what is fundamentally human. In this essay he reflects on the way Trakl’s poetry triggered a crisis of literary faith, so to speak, allowing him to heal and understand himself in a way no rigid doctrine could ever manage to do. Both books are translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Seagull Books, as is the very different Fühmann title I am looking at here, The Beloved of the Dawn, a slender volume comprised of four retellings of Greek legends, beautifully presented alongside vivid digital collages by Sunandini Banerjee.
As mentioned, Fühmann spent time in Greece toward the end of the war. As translator Isabel Cole indicates in her note at the end of The Jew Car, this opportunity to spend time in the country was especially valuable: “Since childhood Greek mythology had fascinated him, and the confrontation with Greek reality, the juxtaposition of myth and war, would inspire much of his literary work.” This awareness charges his personal take on these stories—drawn from a collection originally published in 1978—with a certain tension that gives them a contemporary energy. Despite its colourful presentation, this is not a book for young children, rather he is speaking to young adult and adult readers, fleshing out well known incidents with a very human, somewhat subversive tone.
The first of the four legends to which Fühmann turns his imagination in this collection is Homer’s Hymn to Aphrodite (219-239) which chronicles the love of Eos, the goddess of the dawn, for the mortal Tithonus. She begs Zeus to grant him immortality so they can spend eternity together, but forgets to ask for eternal youth. The reality of life with an immortal mortal is vividly evoked. The second tale focuses on Hera’s magic-enabled seduction of her wandering husband as depicted in Homer’s Iliad, chapter XIV, portraying the great king of the gods, he of enormous appetites, in his moment of weakness and subsequent bitter revenge:
That night, three hundred years, he’d sworn fidelity: one night, but what a night!—He was Zeus, and he was who he was.—Then he’d deceived her ten thousand times: with her sister, with the Wanton One and her retinue, with all the nymphs, all the Muses, all the Horae, all the Charities, with all the wives of all the gods and all the daughters of all of the goddesses, even with his own, not to mention countless mortals: she-humans, she-beasts, and even plants, and with boys, too, with monsters, with ghosts.—He was who he was, and now he was one who desired Hera and none other.
The third story—dedicated to Heinrich Boll— recounts the silenus Marsyas’ reckless challenge of Apollo to a musical duel with melodious pipe cursed by Athena. In its graphic depiction of agony, this version makes the hideously aging Tithonus’ fate seem mild. Marsyas’ grisly destiny is hinted at throughout, but he ignores the warnings of dreams and even fails to believe his opponent is serious in exercising his reward for winning as the blade slips beneath his hide. Fühmann makes visceral what no marble statue and few paintings can aspire to.
The final tale similarly breathes depth and life into another of the less fortunate characters in the Greek pantheon of major and minor deities, in this case Hephaistos the physically disabled god of fire, the eternal guardian of blacksmiths, craftsmen and artisans who was, in this role, worshipped and yet required to serve in Olympus. Fühmann portrays this conflicting position, its balance of strength and weakness clearly in his hero. The story at hand is, of course, the famous account of Hephaistos’ response to the news that his wife, Aphrodite, is having an affair with Ares, the god of war. The crafting of an invisible, infinitely strong web to capture a theoretically invincible foe is depicted with poetic, elemental detail:
He laid his hand on the pristine metal.
The beauty of its coldness and resiliency, and the force of the fire that conquers them both.
He melted off a handful of the material and once it had cooled began to rub it between the fingertips of his right hand while stretching it out with his left. When the hot metal had a ductility, when a cool hardness such as he had never encountered, such as could arise only here, as the solar plexus of all metal veins between the heart of the earth and its diaphragm.—Soul of matter: his medium.—What he need now was the finest of eyelets: a flake from a diamond, shot through by a sunbeam.
The net he weaves and the trap he sets succeeds, but only so far. Hephaistos is too bold, and too stigmatized to not be mocked even in his triumph. The resulting story is one of a bittersweet and complicated relationship between a gifted genius and his fellow gods and goddesses, even his beautiful wife.
The strength of each of the tales collected in The Beloved of the Dawn lies not in the overall arc of events which have been illustrated and revisited countless times, but in Fühmann’s ability to tell them anew. His distinctive prose style which employs poetic fragments and a frequent use of em-dashes, often to open new sentences, allows him to add colour, shadow and character to these archetypal figures and convey a relatable, recognizable agency to his portrayals of these familiar legends. His narrative acknowledges that many poems and artworks have come before, and openly claims to be more interested in some of the lesser known backstory, but he never abandons the mythic form. Witty and sharp, he is having fun with these timeless tales of Gods behaving badly.
The Beloved of the Dawn by Franz Fühmann is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Seagull Books with full colour illustrations by Sunandini Banerjee.