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Fuck America. Bronsky’s Confession by Edgar Hilsenrath – Bandini on steroids

January 30, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Fuck America by Edgar Hilsenrath (1980) French title: Fuck America. Translated by Jörg Stickan.

Last time I visited a bookstore, I thought I’d browse through the German literature shelf and see if I could find a book that wasn’t about WWII and wasn’t too depressing. Sometimes it seems that only those make it into French translation. Fuck America by Edgar Hilsenrath caught my eye for its bold title and its colorful cover.

The book opens on a prologue: letters exchanged between Nathan Bronsky and the American consul in Germany. After Kristallnacht, Nathan Bronsky, a Jew who lives in Halle an der Saale, wants to emigrate to the USA with his family. The consul answers that it will take several years.

Then we’re in New York in 1953. Jakob Bronsky, Nathan’s son has been in America for a year. He lives in a boarding house and spends his nights at the emigrant cafeteria on Broadway and 86th. It’s open all night long, coffee is cheap and Bronsky stays there to write his great novel, The Wanker.

We follow Bronsky in his daily life, where he alternates odd jobs to save enough money to live off this cash for a while and write other chapters. He describes all his tricks to take the bus without paying and to make his money last longer. He steals a bit of coffee and some eggs in the communal kitchen at the boarding house. He eats in restaurants and leaves without paying, escaping through the bathroom windows.

Bronsky lives in a poor neighborhood, full of emigrants, prostitutes and bums. He associates with street smart emigrants or bums and follow them in small scheme to swindle money while on their jobs. Small tricks, not too risky, not too illegal. Just poor guys who turn the tables on those who try to exploit them.

Bronsky is not a good emigrant. He writes in German and has no intention of ever writing in English. He doesn’t feel at ease in the American society. He doesn’t want to become an American because he doesn’t buy the American dream. He doesn’t want to work hard and become rich. He doesn’t subscribe to consumer society, to the need to show off, to earn more to buy more.

Then the book turns into a confession and we learn what happened to the Bronsky family between 1939 and 1952 and how he arrived in America. I understand that Jakob Bronsky’s life is based on Hilsenrath’s. And that part is not so funny.

Bronsky is a Jewish Bandini merged with a sober Bukowski and a Portnoy born in 1926 Germany. He’s offensive. The dialogues are crude, absurd and hilarious. He’s obsessed with sex, obsessed with writing. He has a wicked sense of humor and he points out the foibles and prejudices of the American way of life. The passages when he does odd jobs are funny and vivid. Jakob is not a bad guy. He does what he can to survive and write his novel, trying to expurge from his sytem the burden of his war memories. He’s a survivor of the Holocaust and we tend to forget it because of the dark humor instilled in the book.

So, OK, I didn’t manage to read a German book that doesn’t talk about WWII but I sure want to read more by Hilsenrath.

  1. January 30, 2021 at 11:14 am

    In the 1950s the Beat generation were just around the corner at Colombia University (understand I have zero knowledge of New York geography) – I wonder if Hilsenrath met them, it sounds like a Beat Generation book. I checked Wikipedia, Fuck America was not listed as one of his works, perhaps they are getting prudish (or just sensitive about anti-American sentiment).

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 31, 2021 at 11:49 am

      I don’t think he was in contact with students from Columbia. He seems to have lived like Jakob Bronsky: surviving on odd jobs to provide for the minimum and write books.
      Fuck America is listed on Wikipedia, on the French page and the English one.


  2. January 30, 2021 at 2:56 pm

    Your review makes this book seem so much more interesting and readable than its unfortunate title. I’ve enjoyed stories about immigrants ever since I read Giants in the Earth when I was a teenager. I’ll add this to my long list.


    • January 31, 2021 at 11:47 am

      It’s the original title, nothing to do with translation.
      It’s worth reading because it’s different from stories where immigrants do their best to fit in.


  3. January 31, 2021 at 2:18 am

    I was thinking that he sounded a bit like a Philip Roth character… I used to know that neighborhood really well, but by that point it was full of arty types. This book does sound really interesting and the author isn’t someone I’ve heard of before.


    • January 31, 2021 at 11:46 am

      He’s definitely like a Roth character. I like Jewish literature, I think. It’s not that I purposely look for Jewish writers but I always enjoy the ones I read.
      Fuck America has vivid descriptions of this neighborhood at the time. It’ll be even better for you since you know the area well.

      Liked by 1 person

      • January 31, 2021 at 11:47 pm

        So do I. I have added this book to the TBR, I’m very glad you wrote about it.


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