Book Review: Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner

Please note this is the last full entry of 2020,
as we go on hiatus for the Christmas and New Year holidays.

We’ll be back in 2021 and are excited to meet you there!

Set in 1920s Neustadt and Berlin, Emil and the Detectives tells the story of young Emil Tischbein and his adventures during and after a train ride from one city to the other. The boy’s mother sends him off to the capital with DM120 to be delivered to his grandmother, and twenty more for himself. Because it has taken Frau Fischbein—as her son delightfully addresses his mother on occasion—months to save the amount from her hairdresser salary, Emil carefully pins the bills to the lining of his coat pocket. Upon arrival, however, the cash is gone and Emil meets up with a group of local children to help him see if a mysterious man from the train is their thief and whether they can recoup the loss.

Our copy of Emil, complete with 75¢ sticker and chunk torn from the top.

From start to finish this children’s novel is absolutely addicting, charming and enchanting. For modern readers, the most striking feature of the book is the manner in which language transports us back to an earlier time—and not merely via such simple examples as, “Sometimes she sings gay little songs” or “The house is going to rack and ruin.” Author Erich Kästner allows his characters such a range of voice one can easily imagine how they say what they do, with playful sarcasm or extra bit of stress on a word that nevertheless goes unremarked by others because this, actually, is part of the individual’s personality.

However, credit where credit is due: much of this praise must also be awarded the translator, May Massee, who renders Kästner’s original German into an English-language version that seems to be a wonderfully faithful one. Having not read the novel in its native language, I cannot say for sure, but one recognizes the feel of the time—that is, within the last, gasping days of Weimar—even amongst the doings of a “model boy,” who sometimes finds it very difficult to maintain his resolution to remain such. The children also seem to have much more freedom than modern youngsters, and there exists no self-awareness that points out as much, leaving it to the children to do what children of the time did.

I also really loved the manner in which the narrator addresses us, the readers, in the true sense of storytelling, utilizing a familiar you (that is in the English sense, as in using the word at all, not to be confused with the German familiar du) to assure us, for example, of particular details, or how he registers our surprise. Still, Massee keeps us in Germany, declining to adapt this translation to a modern audience incapable of figuring out what marks are or utilizing wholly inadequate English words in place of those such as “scoundrel,” which is actually a very fine word that ought to reclaim its place in the pantheon of words. No, she trusts her audience to be able to assimilate into German culture enough to appreciate the book on its German terms, without having to become what it is not (as much as one possibly can in a translation).

“Probably many of you will think that no one need make such a fuss over a hundred and forty marks as Frau Tischbein was making for Emil’s benefit. And if a person earned two thousand or twenty thousand or maybe a hundred thousand marks a month, of course he wouldn’t have to.

But in case you don’t know it—most people earn far less than that. And whether you like it or not, anyone who earns thirty-five marks a week must think that a hundred and forty marks he has saved is a great deal of money.”

By today’s standards, the self-sufficiency of Kästner’s child characters is practically miraculous, and one of the takeaways we observe rests within the honor of children acting without grownup supervision. What does that say about the influence of adults? Moreover, Berlin being Berlin, it comes as no surprise that the city itself is presented in a manner not unlike another character, though of course, not just any other character. As Emil enters the capital, he is challenged by the wildness that even he, in his childlike fashion, recognizes.

“Those autos! They rushed past the streetcar, honked and squeaked, signaled for left turns and right, and swung around corners; other autos pushed right after them. What a jam! And so many people on the sidewalks! And from every side street, cars, delivery carts, double-decker buses! Newsstands on every corner. Wonderful show windows with flowers, fruits, books, gold watches, clothes, and silk underwear. And tall, tall buildings.

So that was Berlin.”

In this way the city, its chaotic juxtaposed with its lovely, asserts itself as neither Emil’s friend nor adversary, and he sees its challenges while simultaneously admiring its beauty and excitement, a child’s view of both the allure and grotesque of Berlin in the 1920s. As one playing its role in events, Berlin does not disappoint, and Emil sets off in his attempt to regain his loss, navigating his way through victory and defeat, working both with and slightly against his partner, Berlin, in defeating a vile thief. It is perhaps this element of city as character that has lead to Emil und die Detektive escaping the Nazi bonfires and never being out of print since its first publication in 1929.

“And tall, tall buildings.” The Borsigturm (Borsig tower), an example of Brick Expressionism (built 1922-1924). Emil might have gazed up at this building upon his entry into Berlin. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As so many reviewers before have urged, this is a book for grownups and children alike, loaded with perspectives that will inform, unbeknownst to its readers, as it entertains. For while we admire the authenticity of Emil and his cohorts, we are also fascinated by the history that even in its own time was novel in its presentation, wildly popular and too esteemed to burn.

Emil and the Detectives has been translated into over fifty languages, its popularity reflecting the growth within: as the story progresses, the feel of the language matures, along with Emil’s understanding of things that happen within the world. In this way readers also grow with the book, and they will close it markedly different people than when they first picked it up. This does not change on subsequent reading, and we see something new in the story each time—just as it should be.

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