Dec 2017

Rezension: Nancy Aris. Dattans Erbe.

by Gabriele Eckart

Nancy Aris. Dattans Erbe.  Leipzig: Mitteldeutscher Verlag 2016, 315 Seiten, 14.95 Euro

Nancy Aris who works in Dresden in the office of the “Landesbeauftragten für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der DDR” has been known for her publications on East Germany’s recent past as, for instance, Zeitenwende 1989: Bilanz und Perspektiven der Aufarbeitung and Das lässt einen nicht mehr los: Opfer politischer Gewalt erinnern sich.  Now, she has published her first novel, Dattan’s Inheritance, that surprisingly has nothing to do with the legacy of the GDR.  It is about a German woman, Anna, who after the end of the Cold War travels to Vladiwostok to research the life of Adolph Dattan, a former bookkeeper from Naumburg who had created a successful trading empire in the Far East of Russia during the second half of the 19th century and became a well-known supporter of art and science.  Later, during World War I, he had lost both fortune and reputation due to having been falsely accused of being a German spy. He was banished to live deep inside Siberia for five years; after which time, he returned to Germany a broken man; he died in 1924. Anna, who follows the traces of his life, is a historian specializing in Russian history. Following her intuition, she finds more than the few documents that are in Russian archives about Dattan, and desperately attempts to find meaning in the complicated past (“der verkorksten Vergangenheit einen Sinn geben”), as she calls it.

I found the description of the circumstances of Anna’s trip from Germany to the Far East of Russia and her adventures in the post-Soviet city of Vladiwostok even more interesting than her reconstruction of Dattan’s tragic life story. During the three months there, she has to struggle to find a place to live and to fight with a criminal gang of car smugglers and with the inertia of Russian archivists. As she becomes aware of during her stay, Vladiwostok was a multicultural city with a strong German presence before the revolution of 1918.  However, by the 1930s most foreigners had left – a situation that has been reversing since the end of the Cold War, as more and more people from other countries, mainly Asians, have moved into the city, bringing back the international trade and strongly enriching the new multi-cultural life.

Due to her superb Russian language skills, Anna is able to communicate with many Russians whom she meets in the city and also gets a glimpse of the feelings of people in the face of the disappeared Soviet Union.  Many are relieved about the political and social change that has taken place; others feel nostalgia towards their lost communist country and sharply criticize the present predatory capitalism (“Raubtierkapitalismus”). Due to her sensitivity, Anna is able to understand both points of view.

Stylistically, the novel is a treasure. Aris’s language is colorful and refreshing. She uses wordplay and expressions of German vernacular in addition to many instances of code-switching from German to Russian and English. She also embeds literary references, for instance, to books by Mark Twain. With sarcasm, she struggles against German prejudices against Russians: “Did the Russians not always have chickens and goats on their laps?” (“hatten die Russen nicht immer Hühner und Ziegen auf dem Schoß?”) But, the crucial question: “Why were we always so arrogant and consider us better than others?” (“Warum waren wir immer so arrogant und hielten uns für etwas Besseres?”) she cannot answer.  Since she is able to deconstruct her own prejudices during her trip, it seems that traveling is the best way to work against them.  Dattan seems to have understood that as well. “For weeks, he traveled through Russia, from one post office to the next. By sled or carriage, on old trade routes or trapper paths“ (“Wochenlang war er durch Russland gereist, von einer Poststation zur nächsten.  Mit Schlitten oder Kutsche, auf alten Handelsrouten oder Pelzjägerpfaden.”) The map on the wall of his business showed Vladiwostok as the center of the world with Germany somewhere far away in the West.  This shift in perspective, the narrative implies, allowed Dattan to be highly successful in his trading profession, at least until the outbreak of World War I.

An ad in the newspaper at the beginning of the novel triggers Anna’s interest in Dattan.  One of his grandsons was looking for a historian who would travel to the Far East of Russia and find Dattan’s diary – supposedly for a family chronicle; he promised to pay well for it.  Since Anna has been frustrated with her job in Germany and also suffers from wanderlust, she goes for it.  However, Anna finds out in the end of her search that the grandson’s reason for wanting this diary was different from what he had claimed; it rather had to do with family intrigue.  This last part of the novel, I read breathlessly as you would read a detective novel.  I recommend sincerely and without reservation Nancy Aris’s book Dattan’s Erbe that fits well into German-Russian understanding of the past.

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