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die entdeckung der currywurst

8 june 2011

I recently read Uwe Timm's Die Entdeckung der Currywurst during two weeks in Germany where I managed, despite my best intentions, to eat no currywurst at all. I just didn't seal the deal. I went from Hamburg, where Timm's novel places the mythical origin of currywurst, to the Hanseatic cities of Mecklenburg and Hither Pomerania. There, in Wismar, I came closest to having currywurst: a lunch van in the market square was offering a Riesencurrywurst, improbably gigantic link sausages sprawling out of little Brötchen, slathered with curry ketchup. Deterred by their size, I had herring for lunch instead, and a few days later I was in Schleswig and southern Denmark, far from the currywurst belt. The closest I got to my target food was Frikadelle with curry ketchup: a pale reminder of the real thing.

In its English translation, Timm's novel is called The Invention of Curried Sausage, but a better rendering of Entdeckung would be "discovery." Currywurst seems so elemental a force of fast-food nature that it can't have been deliberately invented. It was there all along; Timm's novel imagines it coming to light in the presence of an enterprising German woman in the days after the end of the Second World War.

Die Entdeckung der Currywurst reminded me of the German film Goodbye Lenin! – or properly, it's the other way around, as the film appeared ten years after the novel, and was probably influenced by it. In Goodbye Lenin! a family goes to great lengths to conceal the fall of the Berlin Wall from their ailing mother, a maternal hero of the DDR. In Die Entdeckung der Currywurst, the discoverer of the snack, Lena Brücker, conceals the end of the war from her lover Bremer.

How do you keep someone unaware of the end of World War II? Bremer is a deserter who doesn't dare to leave Lena Brücker's apartment. As long as she keeps newspapers away from him and neglects to repair her radio, there's little chance he'll find out independently. So Brücker concocts a story about the Germans joining forces with the "Tommys" and "Amis" to chase Stalin's army back to Moscow. Why? He's a wonderful lover, and she isn't likely to find a better man in the Hamburg of the Nachkrieg.

But Bremer believes her story a little too well. He's not much of a Nazi, but he's a profound nationalistic patriot, and Brücker is scathingly skeptical about all fanaticisms. Ultimately she is horrified to learn about the the concentration and death camps and the extent of the Holocaust, and Bremer goes packing out of her life with nary an afterthought.

Except that the narrative of Die Entdeckung der Currywurst is one long afterthought, a beautifully poised and told tale of regret, of wasted lives, of warped futures and pasts. Lena Brücker tells her story to the narrator, an Uwe-Timm-like younger writer who has grown up after the war eating her currywurst. As she tells the story, we have access to the thoughts of Bremer and others through her narrative, and the narrator sometimes touches their minds with her barely there as intermediary. Sometimes the embedded narrative wanes, and the narrator deals with Brücker in the "present" moment (the early 1990s). The narrative creates itself out of its own sheer storytelling.

Die Entdeckung der Currywurst is clearly not about its title event. In the venerable postmodern tradition of Tristram Shandy, it's a novel that keeps deferring the telling of its own ostensible story. Life is what happens when you are waiting for something else to be explained.

Timm, Uwe. Die Entdeckung der Currywurst. 1993. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2003.