The Real Emil: a Detective Story in Itself
Being published in Berlin in 1929
but dated 1930, Emil und die Detektive was, for its time, a remarkably cheerful comedy. What’s more – and what is not always recognized – it was remarkably innovative as well.
The story is straightforward enough:
Emil, whose father is dead, leaves his much-loved mother in the provincial town of Neustadt, where she is a hairdresser, for a holiday-visit to relatives in Berlin. Falling asleep on the train, he is robbed of his money (140 marks, translating then as seven pounds sterling) by a Man in a Bowler Hat. But by good fortune Emil spots him getting off the train at a Berlin station just before the one he’s heading for, so he follows the culprit with some notion of getting him arrested (his tram fare being paid en route by a friendly fellow-passenger).
His unfixed plan
gains resolution through his meeting Gustav with the Motor Horn an instrument through which Gustav rounds up the youth of the neighbourhood to help in the apprehension of Bowler Hat. These, or at least the foremost members of the crowd, set themselves up as the Detectives. They sort out a communications system (‘Password Emil’), send reassuring messages to Emil’s puzzled relatives, then follow the thief to his hotel, to keep a watch on him overnight. Next morning, accompanied by half the urchins of the city, they triumphantly apprehend their quarry who is trying to deposit the stolen money in his bank. He turns out to be a Wanted Man with a price on his head so that Emil gains both a reward and hero status in the national press.
If you think that that’s all too easy
and indeed rather crudely far-fetched then you need to take into account the manner of its presentation. This may not seem unusual to most readers of English editions who start the story with Emil’s mother, Mrs Tischbein (= Table-Leg) asking her son to bring in a jug of hot water. In German editions however that event doesn’t take place until you get to page 37 or thereabouts. For to begin with you have a twelve-page Introduction under the heading ‘The Story’s Not Beginning Just Yet’ where Mr Kästner gives a farcical account, with many digressions, of how he came to put his story together. (It seems that he was stuck with what sounds like a batty tale of the South Seas and, seeking inspiration by lying on the floor of his study, looking at the chair- and table-legs, he was visited by the tale which the reader is soon to encounter.)
That’s not all though.
Before Emil is sent to fetch the hot water we are also presented with ten leaves of drawings by Kästner’s indispensable illustrator, Walter Trier. These introduce us to some of the main places and persons whom we are going to meet in the story, each accompanied by conversational remarks from the author who stokes up interest but without giving anything away. And even after the story has begun, we are not free of him, for he is an easygoing omniscient author, enjoying the scenes as they unreel and willing, on occasions, to interject comments of his own. (A little masterstroke occurs when Emil is being interviewed by the press after his triumph and one of the journalists – none other than the man who paid his tram-fare – turns out to be a Herr Kästner.)
Emil and the Detectives
has rightly been seen as a work of historic interest, one of the first children’s books of the twentieth century to bring in credible city children, speaking an acceptable enough vernacular. But, so far as English editions are concerned, readers increasingly lose out on its additional interest as an experimental narrative. Thus, so far as I know, no attempt has been made to contrive a feasible translation of the Introduction, while the parade of pictures at the start has also been abandoned. The first translation (by the unacknowledged Cyrus Brooks) did a shuffle by putting in all of the plates, printed on a bright yellow background, with most of Kästner’s remarks, but these were dispersed throughout the book along with what looks to be a freshly commissioned colour plate. Such a treatment at least retained something of the book’s unusual character, but subsequent editions have increasingly denuded it of that, while a new translation by Eileen Hall, done for Puffin in 1959 was hardly an improvement on Brooks’s.
are part of the book’s own chequered history. Kästner was no friend to the Nazis; his illustrator was Jewish as was his publisher, Edith Jacobsohn, who had established her firm as the Williams Verlag in 1924. (She was greatly interested in English children’s books, translating and publishing Hugh Lofting and Winnie-the-Pooh but it’s not clear where the ‘Williams’ comes from.) With the coming of the Third Reich in 1933 Trier and Jacobsohn left Germany, the latter dying in England in 1935, while Kästner saw out the War in Germany under many restrictions and confinements. Perhaps it was with a sort of pride that he saw his books, including Emil, dismembered and burnt on the streets where his innocent detectives had flourished – pride that he was a writer whose integrity warranted such extirpation.
The illustrations by Walter Trier are taken from the 2011 edition of Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner published by Jonathan Cape (0857550292) at £9.99.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.
Kurt Maschler, in whose name the Maschler Prize enjoyed its brief but glorious career, with a statuette of Emil as part of the award, had bought the Williams Verlag in 1935, making it over to Cecilie Dressler who continued it through the War. He left Germany in 1937 and became agent for Kästner’s literary affairs.