May they not rest in peace

Thanks to author C.G. Gibbs for getting in touch. I bought a copy of his first novel, Factory Days, and enjoyed it very much. As Gibbs writes, there are few books or films about factory life:

“No one builds memorials to closed factories or bull-dozed factories. No one makes movies about what happened there. Factories are, at best, used as backdrops for people with more interesting lives, like super-heroes, doctors or cops. No one writes about that concentrated, small life, that micro-history. It disappears into oblivion, as if it never happened. As if it is not worth remembering except to the people who went through it. The people in that life, their work, and let’s face it, their lives, are not thought significant enough to remark upon. Like the hidden gears of a great machine, they are as invisible as people can be. And it doesn’t matter what their color or ethnic background is. They are truly invisible men – they are the invisible people.”

This is working class political fiction but without – and I cannot stress this enough – “workerism”. There is no worship of blue overalls. No mawkishness about the “dignity of labour”. The factory is a prison and for most of those who are released, life outside prison means poverty.

The novel makes occasional and oblique references to events in working class history, such as the Haymarket Martyrs, but these are only distant echoes of a lost tradition. This adds to its authenticity, and to a mood of sombre, subdued anger: it is not only our labour that is stolen, but also our heritage. Our cultural history is out there; it has not been entirely forgotten, but it is not articulated, it is only dulled and distorted through the prism of corporations like Netflix.

In Factory Days the central character, Malachy O’Corrigan, has had enough. The last straw is when he gets unjustly fired for alleged sabotage, which means he even loses the pittance of redundancy pay. This is Reagan’s America of the 1980s and the unions are in full retreat; the only escape is through an individual act. And maybe a desperate one.

It is all very American (the villain charged with closing the factory is a particularly nasty Brit, and the arch capitalist behind him bears remarkable similarities to the Australian tycoon Rupert Murdoch – as though they don’t have their own capitalists in the USA). The first half of the book features many minor characters, which is a slight flaw in terms of narrative, perhaps, even if this does reflect the reality of a large workplace. When O’Corrigan leaves factory work the pace picks up and the focus is on just three or four people on whom he depends, and the cops who are after him. I read the second half of the book in just a couple of sittings.

Gibbs’ style is fast-paced and engaging, despite the underlying anger. The narrative passages are interspersed with streams of consciousness reflecting the confused jumble of thoughts rushing through O’Corrigan’s head. It reminded me of American crime writers such as Elmore Leonard and even Cormac McCarthy.

The ending suggests that there is more to come. Gibbs says he has two more novels in the works.

There are (unfortunately for me, because I have a bad habit of noticing these things) a lot of typos and small errors in the book. That’s not a criticism, it’s an observation. I have seen manuscripts by world-famous authors that have just as many, if not more. The point is that a novel such as Factory Days deserves a wider audience, but to get one you’d need to get it accepted by a publisher, who would get a wage slave to edit it, another wage slave to proof-read it, and then an agency to promote it. And the author might then have a best-seller and, if he is lucky, get a return on the hundreds of hours of effort he has invested.

But the sad fact is that the literary mafia will not touch a book like this. Not these days. The characters are too genuinely working class. They are not idealized, they are portrayed just the way they are, which is not always pleasant. Fashionable identity politics (or the “literature of inclusion”, as it is now called) is entirely absent. For the literary mafia, the working class is not defined in economic terms, it is just one dimension of “diversity” or defined by “regionalism”.

Factory Days by contrast reminds the reader that for most of us, “inclusion” in the system only extends as far as the appropriation of our labour for the production of commodities, and only so long as this is profitable. The novel is therefore “dedicated to all the factory workers whose workplaces closed on them. May they not rest in peace”.

C.G. Gibbs lives in Minnesota. He has worked in factories and offices, and has been involved in union activity and socialist politics for most of his life. Factory Days is available direct from the May Day Bookstore in Minnesota or online, e.g. Amazon in paperback or as an e-book.




Some things never change

The following is my translation of Chapter 10 of Oskar Maria Graf’s autobiographical novel, We Are Prisoners. Published in 1926, it recounts events just before the First World War. And yet it all seems strangely contemporary. Graf’s comrade “Schorsch” is Georg Schrimpf, who later became one of Germany’s leading expressionist painters and an illustrator for the left-communist reviews, Die Aktion and Der Sturm. I aim to publish a new translation of the entire novel later this year.


The sky was deep blue and seemed tremendously near when we woke up. The hotel courtyard was strangely quiet and reminded me more of a monastery than a guesthouse. In its centre, a dilapidated fountain reared up, gently purring and splashing. The tendrils of wild grapevines climbed up the walls. Open corridors connected the stone stairwells running around the hotel floors. This meant you had to enter the courtyard to access the hotel. —

We ate what was left of the food we had brought for the journey, went below to the porter, collected our baggage, paid and went out to the street.

“We now have precisely four francs.” said Schorsch. We weren’t bothered. We felt indescribably at peace with ourselves. —

Life itself was clad in a richly coloured dress, which made us feel at home. Pretty, tanned Italian girls scurried past, the clumsy trams hummed peacefully along the narrow streets, coarse-looking men leaned broad-shouldered at the street corners. The shopfronts had a blissfully bright and open appearance and the sun, high in the sky, shone in splendour over everything. —

We wandered deeper into the town and sat down on a park bench in the Piazza Grande, where we dozed off. A shabby-looking man came up to us and said something like: “Papiero, Cartonaggia?” We thought he was a wandering journeyman who wanted to join us, and I immediately started talking to him in a mish-mash of Munich dialect and scraps of Italian: “Ah! Lazzaroni too! Niente, not us! We are resting here and then we’re off to Brione to meet some friends.”

The man now pulled out his police badge and said: “Polizia!” We understood at once. He also gesticulated wildly with his arms and made it clear that we had to follow him. So, we followed him.

“Ah,” I said to Schorsch with a malicious smile “So this is what goes on in free Switzerland. Aha!”

We plodded on mechanically. The sun shone and there was a clear blue sky above us. Everything was multi-coloured and warm, beautiful and new, apart from this sleazy dog who was arresting us. You meet his type all over the world, I thought. It is all the same, whether you are in Munich or in Switzerland.

At the police station they were most interested in how much money we had. Curiously, nobody asked for identity papers, and that was a relief, because we had not bothered with these in our hurry to leave. I possessed a bill of lading that had been stamped very many times, a Bavarian certificate of residence, and a notification of discharge from Karlsruhe General Hospital in the name of my brother Maurus. I suspected we’d be put in solitary confinement and – because Schorsch had already mentioned this possibility – that they would dump us over the border. But they could only speak a few words of German and did not seem to be taking the matter seriously. A short, fat man on a revolving chair flipped through a dictionary, searched and searched, before finally reading out loud, “Un-gefähr?”

His speech was rapid and muddled, and we simply answered again and again: “Not Lazzaroni!” We finally told him where our comrades were living and were dismissed.

“I suppose it is a bit freer than it is with us! … That’s fine with me!” I exclaimed with satisfaction, as we left the gloomy building. —

Going up the hill above Minusio towards Brione, a man, who looked like a gypsy, strode towards us.

“That’s Theo!” said Schorsch and shouted the name out loud. He laughed and came up to us beaming and open-eyed. In fact, it was our comrade Theo from the Munich “Action” group. He had fled from Munich when he got called up for military service, and was leading a natural life here, more or less according to anarchistic principles.

Apart from him, another three comrades were there. We were delighted and hurriedly told him about what had happened to us. Slowly we climbed higher and higher. The flat house roofs of Locarno and Minusio sank further and further beneath the treetops. The lake stretched out, broad and shimmering. A steamboat cruised lazily across the water. The flat, square houses of the villages on the far shore stood out in the crystalline air and the softly rounded loins of the Italian foothills undulated peacefully in the sky …

Theo took us to his abode and fetched the other comrades. His girlfriend Grete gave us something to eat. We decided to go and stay at the Christian colony, “Love”, whose members Theo knew. It was a modern house, built like a villa, with a vineyard and many vegetable beds. A pious community lived here according to Christian principles. The Elder greeted us gently and provided us with a room for ten franks per month. We brought in our luggage and settled in. Meantime it was evening.

Feeling dead tired but liberated, we lay down on the mattresses. When we had been lying there a short time, we suddenly heard a fussy whisper behind the partition. We listened more attentively and looked around the room, which was really a boarded cubicle. Behind the partition that separated us from the adjoining cubicle, there was suddenly a scratching sound, as though a cat was sharpening its claws. It gave us the creeps. The room was lit up by a full moon. Above us, we noticed a metal-plated hole in the wall, which had probably once housed the fluepipe. I nudged Schorsch, and whispered to him softly: “Can you hear it?” He nodded. We listened again and for some reason we fixed our attention on the hole in the ceiling, as that seemed to be where the whispering and scratching came from. Then, all of a sudden, a face appeared in the opening. We saw it clearly. Then another face appeared and disappeared. There was more whispering, and again a face appeared. We stayed still, but we were ready for a fight. Involuntarily, I thought of the scary story about the Spessart Inn and similar goings-on. And because gruesome stories had always fascinated me, it was natural for me to imagine all kinds of nonsense.

I crept closer to Schorsch and breathed into his ear: “Nice people, these Christians! Let’s go and have it out with them! No messing about!”

What business did these blighters have in watching us at night, why were they whispering, and what were they talking about? They must have been crooks hiding behind their Christian masks, or – more probably, as our comrades had told us about spiritualism – they thought we were ghosts. We were very tired and gradually got terribly angry about these scoundrels who would not let us sleep. I nudged Schorsch again, and whispered softly: “Come on, let’s get up and make all kinds of mysterious signs.” We sprung out of bed at the same time and started making an unholy row. We recited mystical verses, rhapsodized over the moon, knelt like Muslims and went about like ghosts. Finally we stripped naked, danced and made incantations, without taking any notice of what was going on in the hole. And just as intended – the noises diminished, the whispering ceased, and no face reappeared. It became quiet. Laughing, we got back on our mattresses. Aha! We thought, though we were not really sure why.

Finally we fell asleep. The next day we told our comrades what had happened. They just said the people in the Christian colony were weirdos, rather confused in their ideas, but our comrades did not know anything more specific. They did tell  us that sometimes they held spiritualist seances and belonged to a sect.

We climbed up a mountain and cut down stout cudgels, which we took to bed, and we listened again. Sure enough, the whispering and spying did start up once more. But then it suddenly stopped for a while. Quickly, and in unison, we threw our cudgels at the wall with all our might, then lay still and listened intently while pretending to snore, as though deep in sleep.

It worked. First it was deathly quiet, then the faces reappeared in the hole; the eyes stupefied with terror. We stifled our laughter. There was an excited chirruping above, then we heard a door open and there was a knock.

We were ready for anything. Nevertheless we called out fractiously, as if we had been woken from a deep sleep. “Yes! … What’s up?!”

“Something has happened,” someone whimpered. We crawled out of our beds, grabbed our cudgels and hid them under our bedclothes. Three men stood there in their long nightshirts, trembling with fear. One of them was flashing a light in the corridor. They wanted to start a search. Grumpily, we said that they should spare us such idiocies and leave us in peace. We went back to bed. We were secretly in fits of laughter. We heard them shuffling around like ghosts for a while, then we finally went back to sleep. But from this point on, there was no more whispering and gawking through the flue-hole It happened occasionally, but we got used to it and let those people do as they liked.

Now we saw another ghost every evening and often roused the entire household. Actually, a white cat was prowling about; a nightly phantom that wandered through the vines. But we did not just want to create a bit of excitement for its own sake. We were stirring things up with calculated intent. We had no money and did not know how we were going to pay for our accommodation. Each time the colony’s Elder approached us we got the jitters. We could see what was coming in his eyes, but we covered it up by telling him the most fantastic stories. The good man could hardly get a word in edgewise; we were the most daring and inventive fibbers. Shaking his head, the master of the house withdrew.

No money! So, to work! I shuddered at the thought of the mill.

Apart from us, our circle of comrades included another six people: Gobmaier, a genuine son of Munich with some rather peculiar and confused ideas about housing settlements, his wife and young lad. Then there was Jenke, a painter and decorator from Saxony, Giuseppe, a locksmith from Munich, good-natured, with a military bearing, and a permanently awkward smile on his lips. And lastly, Theo with his Grete. Each of them had built their own dwelling and only worked now and again, so they could devote their leisure time to their own free development. Actually, they were all people with an inner calling, one could even say they had an artistic bent. What mattered was the inner spirit, and the true task of a genuine anarchist meant: To shape his outward life according to the law of his innermost desires, in the utmost freedom, without limitation, and as far as possible untouched by “culture”.

Theo was the leading intellectual. There was much discussion. We made plans for a future anarchist settlement in Brazil.

Gobmaier was the most practical of all. He was a paperhanger by trade, but there was nothing he could not do, and he regarded the ability of a person to produce all of life’s necessities for himself as the mark of progress: a person should build his own house, make his own clothes, cultivate the land. He worked incessantly, and in his leisure hours he wrote naive verses about Lago Maggiore, poems on freedom and ideas. Jenke was a radical vegetarian who abandoned himself to nature, painted miniatures and justified vegetarianism in his diary. He was very gentle and spent a lot of time observing his theories on digestion and trying to make them plausible to others. He was almost fanatical about this, even if fanaticism seemed ludicrous in such a gentle soul. When we visited him, he read passages from Nietzsche or Forel. But everything came back to vegetarianism. Once, when I read Zarathustra’s “Night Song” aloud and with great feeling, he said, quite ecstatically: “No question about it, the man was a vegetarian!”

“Very nice,” I once said, when he showed me his little pictures. That made him angry; he showed me to the door and started to expound on nature to me. He placed his hands in front of his eyes like blinkers and said in his Munich dialect, as he looked out at the landscape: “There, I see blue, don’t I, and that’s how I paint it. That’s my special talent. It’s a gift of nature.”

I nodded repeatedly. When we went back into the house, he declared: “You just have to be a bit skilful to do that kind of thing.” Giuseppe, who lived with him, took no notice of this. In fact it seemed to me that he was secretly having a laugh. He was generally austere and always working on something practical.

The ties of comradeship were loose. Everyone lived for himself. We were held together only by our convictions. There was no place for anarchists in countries with governments, in cities and in this civilization. That meant starting from scratch somewhere or other, where absolute freedom made such a life possible, where such communities could be created. For this reason the scheme to emigrate to Brazil became more urgent with every passing day. We got together every evening and read and discussed Kropotkin, Landauer and Proudhon. It often got heated, but we understood one another. Everyone worked during the day.

We had no money. The landlord pressed us. I cursed all of Switzerland. In Ascona there was work with a man called Gräser. But he paid no wages. He just provided food and accommodation and rejected all contact with “culture”. There were quite enough settlements of that kind. This was profitable for people who already had some property, sometimes highly profitable, because deserters for example, or Russian revolutionaries, were forced to work for these drones without wages.

There was every type of human being there: revolutionaries, vegetarians and painters from every point on the compass, disciples of open-air health regimens, and lastly writers and devotees of nature with long hair, who wore no clothes except a shirt and sackcloth. Some full-blooded vegans had a large settlement at Verita, known as “The Blueberry”, where they proclaimed the cult of naturism, free love and a “new humanity”. They stuck propaganda sheets written in verse form on all the trees, inviting people to join them, but woe betide anyone who smelt of soap, or brought any, or worst of all, smoked …

Our need for money became more and more acute. We worked a few days for Gräser. Then a master decorator in Locarno gave us some painting jobs. Nanndl sent money. So we got by.

“To hell with this life,” I moaned one day during a discussion. “It’s just the same as anywhere else.” Schorsch moved out and built himself a couple of rooms in a mill, planted vegetables and finally found a job as a confectioner in Locarno. Suddenly, I hated the whole set-up; I called Jenke a “grass-muncher and digestive-tract revolutionist” and shut myself off. I did not like this placid life and all the discussion. I spent my last francs buying a supply of groceries and showed my face no more. I lay on my mattress all day, reading and writing. Sometimes I tramped through the surroundings alone.

One day, as I was getting on the bus in Ascona to go to Locarno, a man sat next to me who seemed very familiar. The Leipzig Anarchist had published his picture a short while ago.

A French-speaking companion was talking with him. So I could observe him at my leisure. The man was small and had a long, well-kempt grey beard, which covered half of his chest. His eyes moved restlessly behind his glasses, and his entire face was thickset, with sharply protruding cheekbones. Only his forehead rose smoothly in the shadow of his hat.

The pair of them got out in Locarno. I followed them. I got closer and closer to them. The little, grey-bearded man grew nervous. I came right up to him and tapped him from behind on the shoulder, causing him to turn around in amazement. He looked rather confused.

“Excuse me, but have I the honour of addressing Prince Peter Kropotkin?” I asked, rather awkwardly, and with a slight laugh. The man nodded amicably and scrutinized me briefly. At the time, I wore only trousers and shirt, always going barefoot, and had long, flowing hair.

“Excuse me,” I repeated rather hastily, “my name is Graf. I am a socialist and saw your photograph in the Leipzig Anarchist.”

“A young comrade,” Kropotkin now said to his companion, introducing me. We gradually got into conversation. I praised Kropotkin’s books and told him about the movement in Germany. The two of them listened with interest.

“Do you write for socialist newspapers?” asked the Prince, when I made a passing mention of my literary efforts, and he gazed at me.

“No, just for comic papers,” I replied. The two of them cast their eyes over me again and smiled a little. Nobody knew what to talk about next. I felt uncomfortable. I said something about my German comrades in Brione and said goodbye where the road turned off.

“Hopefully we will see each other often,” I said as we shook hands, then ran off in a hurry. I reached Brione breathless and, in a state of feverish excitement, I told my comrades what had happened. They were all in raptures. They wanted to organize a ceremony of homage and visit the Prince immediately.

“That sounds like the German Veterans’ Association celebrating the anniversary of Bismarck’s death,” I protested. That hit home. We quarrelled. They felt offended for some reason and, rather doggedly, they tried to justify themselves. “Honouring intellectual achievements, which can be of great service to all of humanity in the future, is a very different matter from the deferential cult of royalty and rank that is instilled in people, which does nobody any good and just stupefies the masses,” Theo argued again and again. He went on: “If we feel compelled to honour Kropotkin openly, I would say we are doing this almost spontaneously. It’s just common sense.”

“The German Veterans’ Association does things spontaneously, too,” I said maliciously.

“Sophist,” shouted Theo, casting angry glances at me.

“In the past the people had the Kaiser or some such creature. Now you have set up another God for yourselves,” I said, standing up, and added wryly: “It’s always the same story, men must have some authority, or else they perish.” We parted; half divided by an invisible barrier.

German revolutionaries are an odd bunch, I thought, as I strode through the dark; they are like eternally craggy twenty-year-olds with their stodgy idols, Don Quixote come to life, with the everlasting urge to become a Nazarene.

A heavy fragrance hung in the night air. The moon heaved through fleeting clouds. Deep below, Locarno was speckled with light, reflected in the pale lake, which stretched out peacefully like a silvery-blue rug, and the sky above was infinitely distant.

Shortly before I fell asleep, I sat up suddenly and said out loud to myself: “It’s all madness! I have to get out! It’s all filth.”


“More T.E. Lawrence than Che Guevara”: Dangerous Men by L. Hobley

A collection of alpha males, espousing wildly different political ideologies, come together to form a militia and offer some effective resistance to Thatcher’s Britain. “They were all, to a greater or lesser extent, fantasists; Walter Mittys with a cause […] Above all else they were romantics; […] warrior poets with their own chivalric code.” Dangerous Men is a thrilling story with larger-than-life characters, deserving of a wider audience. This is a book that no commercial publisher would ever touch, and in any case I suspect L. Hobley would not countenance the compromises that a commerical publisher would demand.

The title is taken from the well-known T.E. Lawrence quote:

“Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that all was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible.”

Demoralized by the defeat of the miners and printworkers in the mid-eighties, and fed up with the idle dreams of revolution, left-wing activists decide on covert intervention in future industrial disputes. But their first action is a tragic disaster. They are subsequently joined by people who know what they’re doing: a disgruntled ex-SAS trooper and two feisty women – an Irish paramilitary and an ex-Israeli Defence Force sharpshooter. They train hard and toughen up their act. Their reputation grows. But they inevitably overreach themselves and their security is breached. Two are killed in a final shoot-out and the rest disperse; but the legend of the PTC (we never learn what the initials stand for) grows. The narrator, whose precise identity also remains a mystery, is an academic investigating the truth behind the legend. Consequently we are often left wondering if there is a kernel of truth here. Was there really such a group? Did events described in the book, such as the bombing of the M27 tunnel, actually happen?

The dangerous men (and women) are so real, have such depth of character that you feel you know them, have touched them, spent evenings drinking and arguing with them. The suave and handsome Marxist who nearly loses his life in the first action, the Scottish nationalist, the South African ex-Foreign Legionnaire, the beautiful IDF soldier Tanya, the level-headed but accident-prone Vino, the strong man Dennison, the psychotic survivalist “Killer Bob” and Bishop, the Judas who finally betrays the PTC and turns to religion. Even the former policeman who is charged with breaking the group is a convincing, though deeply unsympathetic, creation.

The book is rambling in places and the narrative is disjointed. It reads like a rough first draft and needs a seriously radical edit. But if you overlook the omissions and inconsistencies and focus on the actions described you might find Dangerous Men a thrilling high-testerone read.

Dangerous Men is available on Amazon.

Wir sind Gefangene by Oskar Maria Graf


I struggled through the 540-odd pages of Oskar Maria Graf’s Wir sind Gefangene: Ein Bekenntnis (We Are Prisoners – A Confession) before my German was anywhere near good enough. It was worth the effort. I am rereading it and will work on a new translation. In this foreword, written two years before Graf’s death in 1967, he sets out precisely what I understand as proletarian literature: the authentic voice of a member of the “anonymous masses” looking up at the crimes visited upon them by the State and by capitalism.

The book alternates between horror and self-parody, as the author dodges and ultimately confronts authority in various guises. Proletarian picaresque, if you like. But I will not reveal more. Read it in German if you can, or else you will have to wait. The book was translated into English in 1927 as Prisoners All but this has been out of print since. My next project will be to put that right. It deserves a wider audience.

Graf went on to write a unique collection of stories, largely focused on the life of the rural workers and artisans of his native Bavaria. Because of their folksy nature, his books initially escaped the Nazi book-burning of 10 May, 1933. Graf responded with his famous appeal:

“Burn me!”

FOREWORD by Oskar Maria Graf, on the first edition after 1945

This book, which now appears unchanged from the first edition published in 1927, was of fundamental significance for my entire literary existence. Up to that point, I had acquired only a certain amount of local popularity, which barely extended beyond the artistic quarter of Schwabing, through a slim volume of run-of-the-mill expressionist poems, some rough satirical peasant sketches in Simplizissimus and Jugend, and a booklet of earnest village tales, but chiefly through my wild bohemian life in Munich. What’s more, I must confess quite frankly that at the time I considered my writing quite a questionable affair, an effortless occupation that consisted of nothing more than a lustful narrative talent, a great deal of vanity, a fair number of original ideas, and a very cheeky, ballsy heedlessness.

That changed entirely at a stroke with the appearance of Wir sind Gefangene. The book caused a tremendous sensation, was widely discussed in all circles, unanimously admired in the leading daily press and serious periodicals, and translations appeared in English, French, Spanish, and Russian in quick succession. Apart from the strongly supportive propaganda of the publisher, which had a poster with an larger-than-life-sized picture of me and the headline text “The author of the day – The book of the year” plastered on all the advertising columns in all of Germany’s cities, the enthusiastic, in-depth opinions of such great minds as Romain Rolland, Maxim Gorky, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and other well-known authors of my generation first enabled this instant fame to have a far-reaching impact. With this, I was, so to speak, accepted into the canon of serious literature, and not only that! “In We Are Prisoners, the fierce scream of terror from a youth disenchanted by the war, the post-war and the failed revolution echoes for the first time and accuses us all!” says a long review by Theodor Lessing, who later emigrated to Czechoslovakia and was murdered there by Hitler agents, and I suddenly stood – unexpected and unintentionally – as the spokesman representing my young generation at the forefront of the social and intellectual conflicts of those turbulent years.

To tell the truth – and quite apart from the raging vanity that such an unexpectedly easy triumph produces – if, today, after more than thirty years, I remember my condition at the time, I must admit that all this unexpected success disturbed me immensely, yes, shocked me to the core, because in all my superficial existence, I had for a long time been engrossed with the works and teachings of my great teacher Tolstoy, and that had not failed to leave its mark on me. Now, all of a sudden, I began to think deeply about myself and my position on literature and always ended up with the oppressing question: “For what purpose, and for whom, does one write? Is the writer only there to achieve the highest level of mastery over language, to use sublime knowledge of psychology to make real-life situations of any kind understandable, and to fascinate his readership through the art of his narrative, or does his task as a writer consist far more in fighting against injustice in the world, wherever it appears, to make people receptive to and socially responsible for social and moral insights, to brand any war as a crime, and, at the risk of being misunderstood and suspected for a lifetime, always to speak out for a social order in which equal rights apply and in which the voluntary nature of participation in the whole finally becomes a moral rule?”

From then on it became clear to me that I could only be a writer in the latter sense of the word, a life-long so-called “engaged” writer whose talent was also an absolute human and social obligation. Certainly, I saw in everything of beauty, in all art something humane, but this humaneness only ever stirred and delighted, dissipated again and left no profound effect. It did not penetrate into the ambiguity of the human character, it did not destroy its inherited, thoughtlessly accepted ideas, it was unable to turn the cowardly, opinionless Joe Public into a person who could think and act for himself. Art was also rather like an “Opium for the People”. It made the individual, and entire peoples, incapable of resisting the nonsensical and the evil in everyday life that we had to experience in the recent decades of horror. That could and should never again be the task of writers, artists, intellectuals! If they were to stick with their old ways, they would pile immeasurably more culpability on top of the gruesome complicity that they undeniably had in the past. And the worst of all: Then all of their further work and effort would go, without any resonance, into blind nothingness and mean nothing other to subsequent generations than a curious “hobby” from grandfather’s time. —

But Wir sind Gefangene also had — as I now see it today — another quite different significance to the German public at the time, that went beyond me. The book was a forerunner for all the soon-to-appear, memorably powerful anti-war novels by Remarque, Renn, Plievier, A.M. Frey, and others, initiating an almost hectic increase in the production of similar works of all political directions, which — depending on the prevailing economic situation — became a highly lucrative business for many publishers.

But my book, written down with all the unquestioning, flickering subjectivity of a rebellious thirty-year-old, was very different from all these works that came later. It was in no way just a protestery anti-war book. It had, without my suspecting or wanting to do so, expanded, as it were in the course of its writing, into a comprehensive document of that most turbulent period from 1905 to the collapse of the 1918 German Revolution, and because one of the anonymous masses did not consider himself a superior prosecutor, alarmist or admonisher who positioned himself outside of his social environment, but remained within it and openly acknowledged: “I too am complicit! I too am responsible for the catastrophe!” – the youth of that time had found her unintended spokesman in this book.

Thomas Mann was the first and only one to fully pick up the scent of precisely this in his review. Possibly for this reason Wir sind Gefangene won the hearts of my peers and contemporaries and gathered no antiquarian dust, because even today, countless letters from readers from all walks of life testify to how frankly and lucidly they find their own youth conjured up in this book, and the most peculiar thing is that since that time, not a few historians have used this subjective confession as an objective source-work on those far-off times. We therefore hope that this autobiography has something to say to the youth of today. Above all, because it shows that the youth of that time, despite all the disappointment and hopelessness it experienced, courageously acknowledged this as their era, and yet remained faithful to the future. That this future was not fulfilled as had been hoped was not the fault of this youth, which time and again staked its life in the bloody struggles for these goals. To repeat it once again: The emergence of a completely different, more terrible future was and remains largely the fault of those intellectuals who, as soon as politics necessarily descended into repugnant detail, immediately withdrew to produce flawless art. —

New York, USA, Spring 1965
Oskar Maria Graf

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre


Howard: A thousand men, say, go searching for gold. After six months, one of ’em is lucky – one out of the thousand. His find represents not only his own labor but that of nine hundred and ninety-nine others to boot. That’s uh, six thousand months or five hundred years scrabbling over mountains, going hungry and thirsty. An ounce of gold, mister, is worth what it is because of the human labor that went into the finding and the getting of it.

Man: Never thought of it just like that…

We all know the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston. But how many know that the book on which the films is based was first published in 1927 as Der Schatz der Sierra Madre and was written by the exiled German revolutionary, B. Traven? (His true identity remains something of a mystery.

B. Traven was also the author of The Death Ship (German: Das Totenschiff) and a series of novels set in Mexico.

Anyway, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is well worth reading. For some reason it has been out of print for a while, but is available free to read online or downloadable in Kindle-compatible .mobi format on libcom.

P.S. A film with a similar theme is The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur, 1953). It was also based on a book of the same name by Georges Arnaud. Has anyone read it? Was it ever translated? And is it any good?