Book review: “Immer sind die Männer schuld” by Stefan Heym

Stefan Heym’s German short story collection “Immer sind die Männer schuld“, or “Men are always to blame”, is dedicated to his wife Inge. The title may give the impression this book will be a depressing read. In reality, the collection of short stories is full of irony, humour and very entertaining.

Heym’s wife features in nearly all of them. The subject of most stories is love and especially the great love between Stefan Heym and his second wife. The book’s title derives from the first of the thirteen stories. In this first story, we glimpse a couple who have been married for a while. The wife seems to excel in nagging and making her husband feel guilty, but the story actually becomes a moving account of love.

This first story is also an excellent introduction to Heym’s voice in this collection. His German is not the ordinary, grammatical language. It is the spoken German used by someone who seems to use German as a second language. Stefan Heym, a pseudonym of Helmut Flieg, spent quite some time in the US and the stories read as if Yiddish or another language was the person’s mother tongue.

Heym uses dialect, and the occasional Yiddish word. Mesjuggah I was familiar with in a different spelling, but Nebbich was new. Heym writes like a “schlemihl”, married to a far cleverer wife who practically runs everything.

“Pin”, a story about Heym’s struggle with having to remember the four-number-code of his bankcard is a good example. The first paragraph describes the dictionary definition of a pin and continues with a personal one:

Wie ich gewesen bin ein junger Mann und schön und kräftig und ein Soldat in der Armee, der amerikanischen, haben wir genommen ein Stück Glanzpapier wo drauf ist gedruckt gewesen ein Girlie mit grossen Zitzkerles links und rechts und ein festen Hinteren und es gepinnt an die Innenseite von der Wand von dem Schrank in welchem wir habe hehabt unsre Ausgehuniform und ein bissel Wäsche, und genannt habe wir dieses Bild ein Pin-up und es war da für die Verbesserung von der Moral von der Armee.

Aber bei mir, wenn ich hör das Wort Pin, seh ich immer das Girlie in meinem Schrank in der Armee …

It goes without saying that when you’re supposed to remember your Pin and can only remember a Pin-up, this greatly interferes with obtaining access to your money. Or as Heym puts it: “… Denn der Mensch ist nicht gebaut für soviel Automatik nur damit er herankommt an sein eigenes Geld. …” The story ends with Mrs Heym getting her own PIN, credit card, and bank-account.

Though most stories are funny, ironic, and deal with highly recognisable incidents like locking yourself out, or getting back your towed-away car, there are a few serious ones. There is the “An meinen Klon“, which describes Heym’s ideas about cloning.

Another one is “Die Geschichte von der grosse Rede“. It describes Heym’s address to the Bundestag after the unification of BRD and DDR, when he was elected as an independent MP. Though it’s told in a humourous way, the story shows the unification was not a smooth one. Heym writes how the moral support of his wife enables him to see things through. A dissident and activist, he resigned from the Bundestag barely a year later.

In one of the other stories, Heym tells his wife how surprised he is, to be able to celebrate the New Year. The new year is 2000. A year later, Heym dies in Israel. This collection of short stories was published posthumously in 2002. The Guardian obituary offers a good, short insight in Heym’s complicated life, which in turn influenced his writing.

Stefan Heym wrote and published in English and German. Many of his novels and collections of columns and short stories are available in other languages as well. Some can be downloaded for free. An English collection called “Shadows and Light”, is available through Amazon.

“Immer sind die Männer schuld, Erzählungen”, Stefan Heym, 221 pp, Bertelsmann, 2002
“Immer sind die Weiber weg und andere Weisheiten”, also by Stefan Heym, may make an excellent companion.

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