“I’d prefer it if people weren’t always looking at things from the outside, trying to explain the crime. Instead, speak of the suffering. I wish people would think about what it is essentially about. Contemplate, rather than commemorate.”
The Bureau of Past Management, by Iris Hanika (translated by Abigail Wender), explores the shadows that national guilt can cast on future generations. It also raises the point that history is monetised as a tourist attraction. All this is told in a tale of two middle aged friends over the course of a few weeks during which their personal lives reach a crossroads. Set in contemporary Berlin, the inheritance of the Nazi era continues to fester.
The story focuses on Hans Frambach, a middle aged bachelor who has long worked as an archivist at the eponymous bureau. Hans is facing something of a crisis, questioning the worth of the work he is now required to undertake. His private life is also largely empty, its highlight the times when his only friend, Graziela, turns to him for advise on the affair she is embroiled in. Hans is happy to offer whatever support she asks for, recognising the value of their friendship.
Hans follows the same habits each day, turning up for work where he tries to act as he believes a normal person would.
“He drew up the corners of his mouth so she would think he was smiling. There would be no other choice. He observed all social conventions, which was why he pulled up the corners – it was customary, that’s how people smiled.”
That he does not consider himself normal adds to the detachment he feels. He ponders the life he is leading, the loneliness he feels knowing he exists with little purpose. He regrets there is no one to ‘hold his hand’.
“In the time he’d found the two records and listened to both songs, a full twenty minutes of his life had been taken from the future and turned into the past.”
When out and about he watches the people around him, his caustic observations bringing to the fore how awkward he feels in company. There is little to suggest he admires anyone else or the lives they lead.
“Another man, young but not handsome, oozed sexual need from every pore. And yet he wore a disparaging look on his face, as though he’d rather torture an animal than have sex, and if a woman did happen to fall into his hands, he’d treat her the same way.”
There are few bright spots in Hans’ days. He looks forward to his regular phone calls with Graziela. When they meet he enjoys her company and conversation. His other pleasure comes when he feels he has bested his co-workers, who he regards with contempt – these small victories are rare and mostly short-lived.
In managing the nation’s past, the bureau is keeping the memories fresh as so many people rely on them for work. Hans can see that this is happening. He tries to discuss his misgivings with Graziela while she shares her own trials with him. Both appear on the cusp of change, something the other encourages, which brings further anxieties.
The irony and wit of Hans’ contemplations sit alongside his loneliness and melancholy. He suffers fearful dreams that are coloured by the Auschwitz archives he is digitising. His suffering is clear, but this is tinged by comparisons to Holocaust victims.
There are occasional chapters that I struggled to fit with the narrative. Perhaps they are internet rabbit holes Hans ventures down during his empty evenings. I do not believe I got from them what the author intended.
In her note at the end of the story, the translator writes that she regards the book’s central question to be ‘how do we understand the past, and what is the purpose of collective, historic guilt?’ While I enjoyed pondering this dimension of the novel, I feel I only garnered what was offered at a superficial level.
An engaging and unusual tale that provides much to consider. Despite being unable to fully grasp every aspect included, the story was well worth reading.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, V&Q Books.