Translating Hermann Burger

Hermann Burger smoking a cigar behind the wheel of his Ferrari

I first heard of Hermann Burger on an episode of Das Literarische Quartett. Reich-Ranicki was a great supporter of his. He sounded absolutely mad – and proved to be so when I read the few stories of his I could find online. I am now translating his last novel, the first volume of an unfinished tetralogy, Brenner, the purported memoirs of a tobacco heir on the verge of suicide. It is beautiful, sad, and incredibly intricate. I generally work fast and with this book, a page often takes me hours: I have looked up model cars, toy trains, railroad terminology, types of tobacco and the methods of curing them, bobsledding courses, maps… It is tiring, but unusually, I have ample time to do it in. I may post a page or two from time to time just to give a sense of the richness and strangeness of this project. Here, Burger is talking about a Schuco-Examico toy convertible, a “time-annihilation machine” his father gave him to help him pass the hours in a hotel while he was there talking over insurance matters, and the Ferrari he replaced it with as a grown man.

The Schuco-Examico “time annihilation machine”

… Now there are, as is well known in the science of parenting, two methods of making unruly children compliant, either you punish or reward them, and my father astounded me by pulling something wonderful, enchanting, dazzling, exceptional, rapturous, pyramidal, deathly elegant out of his suitcase. Packed in pink wax paper, a toy car, or, quite simply, the toy, the car, a superbrandspankingnew glimmering Schuco Examico Cabriolet chosen from among the assortment at my Uncle Herbert’s store in Burg. So runs the entry on my model in Fritz Ferschl’s and Peter Kapfhammer’s comprehensive Schuco book, The Fascinating World of Technical Toys: “What must a proper car have? A clutch, four forward gears, plus neutral and reverse. What model car has had these features since 1936?” The Schuco Examico. It was fire engine red, with red ribbed upholstery, pinion steering, a painted dashboard, the classic gear shifter with reverse located down and diagonal to the left, a hand brake, a horn, a miniature music box for a radio, a lever by the passenger door, a grille that recalled the BMW it was modeled on, two strips of chrome trim, a windshield wiper, and, where the gas cap would go, a tiny hole for the key to wind it up; the wheels were half-hidden beneath curved fenders, as on a Fleetwood, silt-brown and running the length of the body; the doors were embossed and shaped like saddle bags – Satteltasche, nowadays in Leonzburg there is a restaurant with that name – two soldered grommets represented the headlights, a black license plate reading Schuco graced the trunk, the three-spoke steering wheel had a finger grip rim, the tires modeled on Perellis…

… And now, as my life has a maximum duration of two to three years, and any parsimony, restraint, or squirrelling away would be absurd, I have consummated that childhood dream begotten of the Schuco Examico and acquired a rossa corsa Ferrari 328 GTS, with a removable hardtop and maximum speed of 166 mph, and may state unequivocally that no make of sports car, however legendary or pedigreed, not even one blessed by the Pope himself, can approach the Schuco put into service at Hotel Haller, the one I christened Schuco Malaga because my father’s clients took up so much of my time, and whilst the insurance inspector, Hermann Brenner Junior, and the then-owner of Malaga Cellars on Niederlenzer Straße talked over the arcana of life, retirement, and disability insurance, premiums, supplementary risks, and double payout in case of death, I wheeled my red convertible over the parquet floor of Hotel Haller, whose herringbone slats marked out the patchwork of streets, and soon discovered the greater charms of steering by hand than letting the mainspring wind down, because that way, you could speed up indefinitely; and on I drove, as yet unaware of the castle town’s topography, down Bleicherain and Aavorstadt, the Rathausgasse and the Postgasse, shot up Malagarai to Freiämterplatz, then pulled the handbrake to let the opposing traffic through, scant though it was, so soon after the war…

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