Securing an interview with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, one of Germany’s most distinguished authors, on a rare visit to London was quite a coup for Books for Keeps. Fresh from Radio 4’s Front Row interview with Mark Lawson, starring later on at a sell-out poetry reading at London’s Goethe Institute, in public conversation next day with Eric Hobsbawm and turning down many other invitations, the great man could easily have overlooked our own session. But there Nicholas Tucker found him when the time came, now aged 73 but still a handsome figure with an endearing smile and perfect English.
Tucker: ‘Your best-known children’s book, Where Were You, Robert? came out in 1998 and sold over a million copies. Hamish Hamilton published it over here in 2000, translated by Anthea Bell so perfectly that she has now gone on to win this year’s Marsh Award for children’s literature in translation. For apart from the seven times that fourteen-year-old Robert is whisked back into different periods in the past, this is not an obviously magical piece of writing. Descriptions of everyday life in Stalinist Russia, 1930 Germany, seventeenth-century Amsterdam or wherever else come over very much as the real thing. The people Robert meets are similarly convincing. So when you wrote this story to answer some of your teenage daughter’s questions about history, was there anything else you were hoping to achieve?’
Enzensberger: ‘I don’t believe we can all draw the same lessons from the past. But history is where children today can still find the best adventures. Although they often know their own countries and various others well enough, their daily lives may be quite boring and circumscribed. But a trip back through time can offer them all the excitement of a visit to a dark continent still relatively unexplored.’
Tucker: ‘‘When Robert briefly becomes a robber-chief during the Thirty Years War and nearly commits an atrocity, was this a warning about the way that different times can sometimes produce very different behaviour?’
Enzensberger: ‘I suppose so. But this is also a chance for Robert to resist temptation and so prove himself, in the manner of all epic heroes.’
Tucker: ‘Although Robert is bored by the bourgeois life he finds in nineteenth-century Norway, he also loathes the anarchy of civil war. Is there any period of history that he might have liked without qualification?’
Enzensberger: ‘I don’t think so. We are a dissatisfied species. There is no golden age.’
Tucker: ‘Yet the fact that Robert is always given shelter and support on his travels suggests an overall optimistic message about people. Or does this happen simply because it is a children’s book?’
Enzensberger: ‘I don’t like these distinctions. Great classics like Alice in Wonderland or Treasure Island did not prettify the events they described. I made Robert the sort of pleasant, open type who does tend to bring out the best in others.’
Tucker: ‘Could a fourteen-year-old girl have been the main character? Or would that have brought in new problems, for example the possibility of her being at sexual risk?’
Enzensberger: ‘I made Robert a boy because I was to an extent basing him on myself at that age. At 16 I was put in a uniform and told to fight. Coming out of our cellar one day I found there was no longer any house above it. By the next year I had become an authority on the black market. So with such a background I felt I could get into the skin of another boy faced by different sorts of unexpected situations. I had also visited every place that Robert goes to and therefore knew something about them.’
Tucker: ‘Robert gets to meet a couple of the great European cultural figures from the past. Is preserving and then passing on culture the most important gift history can make to the present?’
Enzensberger: ‘Culture reminds us of the best that humans are capable of. Not just in art and music; think of the enduring work of craftsmen, gardeners and builders. Think of the wonderful work of mathematicians, creating whole new cathedrals of the mind. The reason I wrote my other book for children, The Number Devil, was that I was furious at the dull maths teaching my daughter was receiving at school. How could she ever discover that the development of mathematics in the twentieth century is one of the greatest of human achievements?’
Tucker: ‘Robert’s journeys also reflect the dominance of different media at different times. First he disappears into a film, then a photograph and after that a painting. The objects he carries in his pockets from one age to another also play an important part. Why?’
Enzensberger: ‘Because readers will then look in their own pockets and wonder what someone from long ago might also make of what they possess. In that way, history becomes more real as well as personal.’
Just as it does throughout this novel: a truly imagination-stretching story from one of the great European authors.
Where Were You, Robert? trans. Anthea Bell, Puffin, 0 14 130680 7, £4.99 pbk
The Number Devil, ill. Rotraut Susanne Berner, trans. Michael Henry Heim, Granta Books, 1 86207 391 0, £12.00 pbk
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.