„Darktown“ by Thomas Mullen

Please excuse my rusty English, I am out of pratice.


Here in Germany we grew up with the aftermath of World War Two, the Nazi-Regime and the Holocaust. I belong to a generation whose grandfathers fought in the war. We were sensitized about what happened to the Jewish population since Hitler got voted in 1933. Yet it is a difference to read about racism in books and watch movies about it, or to experience it firsthand. Of course racism did not stop after the war ended and the Nuremberg trials were held. But it declined over the decades and we Germans grew up with a special sensitivity and awareness about the topic. Racism and anti-Semitism always lurked under the surface , and from time to time it had its peaks. Right now, in the wake of a worldwide growing populism of the right wing, it shows it’s ugly face by people, who think, they can come out of the closet and say what has been a taboo for decades. They are a minority, but they are loud.

Still for Germans it is always an astonishing experience to learn about institutionalized racism backed by the law in the years after World War Two, especially when it happens in the country that has freed us from the tyranny of the fascists. It is also surprising for the most of us, how long after the end of the Civil War and the liberation of the slaves, the segregation continued wide into the 1960s. And we are also shocked about, how deep this racism is still rooted in the former Confederated States. A fellow student of mine, who, back in high school (in the year 2007!), lived as an exchange student in Georgia, was shocked, when she was not allowed by here guest family to invite black students for her birthday party.

Books like Darktown are important in reminding us that those dark times are not that long over, and that pieces of them still remain to haunt our society. The 1950s and especially the 1960s are pretty good covered by books and movies like Mississippi Burning, the slave times are covered by authors like Frederick Douglas or Harriet Jacobs or fictional biographies like Roots, but the years right after World War 2, this transitional years, before the baby boomers and the consumerism, were like a blank pages (at least in my perception, of course there are books and movies about those years) .

Thomas Mullan filled some of these pages in his crime novel about one of the first black police units in America and especially the southern states that were haunted by an openly lived out racism, lynch mobs, and the Ku Klux Klan. How can the land of the free, the oldest democracy of the world, still have laws based on racism?

The novel cannot answer this (maybe unanswerable?) question. The victims of this injustice, this hatred, and this torment are perplexed by this question. When asked, why he is going to move to Chicago, the cousin of the black officer Lucius Boggs says, those people here are all mad. Black lives did not matter for them, and the police did not give a shit about a dead „nigger“ – they are just looking for the next Bigger Thomas.

The times have changed, but they haven’t changed enough. White people today seemed to have forgotten about those centuries of violent oppression. They need to be reminded, why the slogan „black lives matter“ need to be repeated, and that it does not mean that white lives do not matter, but that there is a difference, because not long a ago there was a time when black lives did not matter for huge part of the white population in the USA.

Darktown is an entertaining and thrilling crime novel, but it is also a vivid reminder of those dark times that can sensitize people for the history of racism and discrimination. Those young officers like Lucious Boggs and Thomas Smith have fought in World War Two against the Nazis, just to return to a country where they are still oppressed by the American equivalent of the German fascists.

The picture of the savage Indian has been formed by the movies of John Ford (who regretted it later) and his colleges in western movies where the word Geronimo was enough to scare people to death. The influence of medias like movies and books on a society cannot be underestimated. And so it is up to those medias to change this aberration. They can do, what boring history classes can not, they can create empathy for characters like Kunta Kinte or Lucius Boggs.

But Dark Town does not preach. It is a crime novel, a murder (of a young black woman) has to be solved, and in the tradition of the genre, we follow two of the investigators through a lot of trouble, while they are just trying to do their job properly in a vicious environment. Mullan is able to create a vivid image of this time that grabs the reader an pulls them into the perspective of the black Officer Lucius Boogs and the white beat cop Denny Rakestraw, whose not willing to follow the path of racism, abuse and corruption that so many of his colleagues have violently stomped into the dusty ground of Georgia over the last decades.

A note to the writers I have the honor to translate

In an interview about his last readings Stephen King once wrote that he did not like to read translations, because I always have the feeling that the author is being filtered through another mind. To a certain point he is right. But I will explain that later (although I think that every book is filtered through it’s readers mind). In the same article he also confessed that he liked the translation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (wooden prose and all). The three novels by Larsson deliver an interesting an unfathomable view into the Swedish society, an view that only this intelligent and well informed journalist could give you, but very unlikely a foreign writer who did not grew up an lived in this country.


I love to travel, I love to discover and experience other countries and cultures, and I love to learn foreign languages. But I cannot learn all of them, and I cannot travel the whole world. So I have to bring the world home. And the best way to do that, is by reading books. Stepping through the uncanny mist of London in Dan Simmons Drood, riding on broom next to the devil over the rooftops of Moscow in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Magarita, suffering One Hundred Years of Solitude with Gabriel Garcia Marquez or solving a perfect murder with Keigo Higashino in Tokio. I would not be able to experience and enjoy all those masterworks of literature without the help of their translations. Of course, reading them, is not the same experience like reading the original, but with a good (or even brilliant) translator it might come close. And this still would be a better experience than not to read those wonderful books at all.

As a translator I know that I cannot reproduce the original text one hundred percent. I cannot clone the reading experience, the reader of the original has, into my language. But I can try to come as close to it as possible. For that I do not just translate the words one by one as the dictionary tells me. I have to consider the context, the plot-given context, but also the cultural background of the writer and the supposed reader of the original. When the New Zealand writer Adam Christopher, living in England, writes about „drinking the Kool-Aid“, most German readers wouldn’t know, that this refers to a mass suicide initiated 1978 by Jim Jones in Jonestown, USA. We do not have the drink Kool-Aid in Germany, and this horrible incident is not part of our collective memory. So I have to find a solution that comes close to the original but also is understandable for the German reader.


Same goes for puns, figure of speech or other expressions that cannot be translated par for par. I have to transfer myself into the head of the writer and imagine, how he would have written it, if German was his first language. I have to distance myself as far from the original as necessary, but stick to it as close as possible. This is a thin red line we as translators have to balance on. It is not always possible to keep it, but I have the best intentions to manage it.

Grammar and sentence structure is another point we have to change to a certain degree, cause English sentence structures do not always work in German. Sometimes we have to break up a sentence and add it together in a new way, to make it work in German. All that without altering the author’s style. We also do not have the (past and present) progressive with -ing at the end of a verb in German. Another thing we have to change while translating. 🙂


A lot of Germans do speak English, and not few of them read books in English. I read a lot of books in English. It is just such a beautiful language, and a lot of good books never get translated (still no Max Gladstone on the German book market!). Some German readers say, they do not read translations of English books, because too much would get lost in translation. But do I as single reader really understand more of the book while reading, than the translator, who works several months on a book, with a lot of research, help by competent colleagues, and the possibility, to ask the writer?

Who would know what Stephen King refers to, when he mentions a poem about plums in Under the Dome. Who would know that a poem by William Carlos Williams is ment, that he wrote to his wife, when he stole some of the plums in the icebox (and to which she wrote a great and poetic reply)? I translate for the readers, who do not have the chance, to read the original version, or just prefer to read in German.

Dear writer, usually I do not want to bother you by asking questions, while you are already writing the next book, or the book after the next one. Or your unfortunately have already passed away (farewell Edmond Hamilton), but if you are still with us, and I really do not understand something, I will not hesitate to ask you, before I get something wrong in the translation (as long as you are okay with it).


For me, it is an honor to translate your work, and I will treat it with care and respect to give the German reader the most authentic translated version of your book or short story possible.

And don’t worry, my German writing is much better than my English. 🙂

P.S. although I don’t use emoticons in my translations. 😉


„Dog Eat Dog“ by Niq Mhlongo

P1000622Hier geht es zur deutschen Fassung der Rezension.

Beware! English is not my first language! 😉

Dog Eat Dog by Niq Mhlongo is a novel about change. It was first published in 2004, but the events take place in 1994 in South Africa during the days of the first free election that was won by the ANC with President Nelson Mandela as a result. Main character and first-person narrator is the young student Dingz, who grew up in one of the townships of Soweto (Johannesburg).

Mhlongo does not really use a dramaturgy, there is no common theme in a classical structure – he delivers episodic insights into the everyday life of the young man, his friends, but also into the society of South Africa. It mostly reminded me on the German novel Als wir träumten by Clemens Meyer, which tells the stories of several young people in Eastern Germany before and after the German reunification in 1990. Like Meyer Mhlongo describes in flashbacks episodes from the old system, for example how young South Africans had to suffer the harassment by the apartheid regime’s police forces.

But in this story protagonist Dingz (I think his Christian name is Peter) does not come along as an appealing figure. At least not according to German beliefs and standards.

„Living in this South Africa of ours, you have to master the art of lying to survive“, explains Dingz.

And lies from the beginning, about the application for a scholarship; he lies to come up with an excuse for missing an exam, cause he partied to much; but also when he get caught by the police drinking in public, or to his girlfriend.
In a corrupted system that has pervaded the society of the country on all levels, only those who adapt to this system of lies and corruption can receive justice. The honest ones will bite the dust. And if such a system of lies has turned to be common, the lie becomes habit and will be used in a knee-jerked reaction even when not necessary. For Dingz gets himself in trouble a few times by unnecessary lies, lest the readers asks himself how Dingz could be so stupid. But on the other side he is a teenager, who are known for occasionally irrational behavior .

Dingz explains his selfishness with the following quote:

The overwhelming pressure of the environment in which we live makes people pursue their own pleasure at whatever cost.

Over decades the black majority – that does not form a homogenous group, but is a mixture of different cultures with a huge variety of languages – has been brutally oppressed by a white minority. And now after the end of apartheid and the rogue regime understandable expectations grow, for being the ones in charge and the right to enjoy live, and for a right to own the future.

The tragedy of all that lies in the fact that the socially difficult situation has not changed for most of the people. Dingz and his family still lives in one of the townships of Soweto, and now studying at a former strict white college, seems more like a fig leaf that the white upper class put as a veil over the flaw of discrimination. Cause Dingz does not have the money to pay for the college and a scholarship can only be reached by lying.

Life in Soweto, as Mhlongo describes it, contains a lot of vitality and improvements, but also a lot of violence. Even a simple ride in a mini-bus can turn out into a dangerous affair, with the bus driver as an regular source of danger. In decades of suppression a terrible potential for violence has swelled under the surface that can explode anytime in short but brutal acts of violence.

Dingz and his friends seem to have arranged themselves with this lurking violence, by developing exit strategies that unfortunately do not work all the time. Despite all this potential mayhem, they do go out regularly, they drink a lot, and they talk a lot about women and sex as well as about the country’s political and social situation. Partly those conversations appear to be a little to academically, as if the author tried to put a lot of information in it, but due to a (often vulgar) humor, he is able to keep them entertaining.

For someone who is very interested in the English language in all its varieties, this novel is with all the South African slang, the Afrikaans expressions as well as many words from languages like Zulu, Siswati, or Sotho and slang from Soweto, this novel is a treasure chest.

Many readers need a main character to identify with or with whom they can at least sympathize . I am none of these. Dingz does a lot stuff I do not like, that makes him seem unsympathetic. But many of his decisions are shaped by the environment (coming from a poor background, apartheid-regime, police-harassment, racism, institutionalized discrimination and so on). He is an ambivalent protagonist, who gives the reader an insight into South Africa shortly after the end of apartheid. It is not a thrilling but fascinating and entertaining novel by a young South African writer.

Reading Richard Wright and „Native Son“ – Is Bigger Thomas an animal?

Dear students from the USA, if you found this essay while doing research for your homework, thesis or essay on „Native Son“, you should know that English is not my first language and unfortunately I tend to use a German sentence structure. In case you want copy/paste parts of my text: your teacher will notice!  😉

Zur Abwechslung gibt es heute mal einen Eintrag auf Englisch. Das werde ich in Zukunft öfters machen, damit ich ein wenig in Übung bleibe. Solche Beiträge werde ich immer mit einer kleinen amerikanischen Flagge kennzeichnen, da ich in der Regel in American English schreibe. Man kann sie aber auch daran erkennen, dass sie eben auf Englisch geschrieben sind. 🙂

I study American Studies at the JFK-Institut at the Free University of Berlin. This entry is an essay that I wrote in a class called „The African-American Novel at Mid-Century”. It will only be interesting for those of you, who read “Native Son” by Richard Wright (but feel free to read it anyway).  The initial point for this essay is question that relates to an essay by Christoph Peterson. Nevertheless, you can read my essay without knowing the one by Peterson.

The question our teacher gave us:

Christopher Peterson begins his essay „The Aping Apes of Poe and Wright“ (2010) with a question: „Can an animal be held accountable for its actions?“ While you do not necessarily have to take up the very complicated argument that Peterson constructs, please use his introductory question to consider if and how Wright constructs Bigger as animal-like and how this depiction impacts the question of accountability.

Reading Richard Wright and Native Son

In this Essay I will answer the question, if and how Richard Wright constructs Bigger Thomas as an animal, in his novel “Native Son”. I am going to show how Wright plays with this picture of being an animal right from the beginning with the battle scene between Bigger and a rat. However, I am also going to show that Biggers actions and reactions are more complex than the panicked reactions of a trapped animal. I will show that he is able to plot, even if it happens on a very simple level. Finally, I am going to show how dangerous it would be, if we perceive Bigger as an animal that is not accountable for his actions.

Richard Wright begins his novel with an epic battle between Bigger Thomas and a rat. The scene opens in the decrepit apartment of Bigger’s family. It is a tiny room that he has to share with his mother, his sister, his brother and the so afore mentioned rat. Bigger is the big boy of the family, so he has to battle the beast (with a skillet). The rat just follows its nature. It has no sense of ownership or trespassing. It does not know that the big people in the apartment are not willing to share the space with it.

Because of its nature and the consequential ignorance of the reactions to be expected by the humans in the apartment, the rat finds itself in a situation that it does not understand. Suddenly it stands in the spotlight and is attacked. The rat’s belly pulsed with fear (Wright, 6).

It has no other choice than react instinctively. In this situation, it has no possibility to act, it can only react. The rat is driven by fear and instinct.
This opening scene foreshadows Bigger’s destiny. Like the rat, he finds himself in situations where he can only react instinctively, where he is only driven by fear – like an animal, like a rat trapped in desperate situation.  The important question is not “Is he a trapped animal?” but “Is he accountable for his actions respectively his reactions?” Moreover, does it make a difference for his judicial treatment?

First of all Bigger Thomas is a human being. He is a son, a brother, a friend and a “wild” teenager. He is a Negro who grew up in times where Negros where “separate but equal”. He grew up under poor conditions. He dropped out of school and started criminal activities with his friends. They had always robbed Negros (Wright, 14).
He lives in the belief that the Whites had everything and the Negros nothing.

“They don’t let us do nothing.”

“Who?”“The white folks.”

“We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like living in jail. (Wright, 19,20)

This is his view of the world. When this view is challenged by Dalton’s daughter Mary and her boyfriend Jan, Bigger is overextended. He does not know how to react. The fear takes over and leads his actions.

Bigger does feel trapped from the beginning. He feels himself trapped in this small room with his family, trapped in the Ghetto, trapped in his color. And this feeling continues. He feels trapped when Mary and Jan try to be friendly. He felt naked, transparent; he felt that this white man, having helped to put him down, having helped to deform him, held him up now to look at him and be amused (Wright,67).

And he feels especially trapped when he has to bring the drunken Mary into the house. What starts as an act of kindness ends in a tragedy, because Bigger is not able to handle against his fears and his instincts.

He should have left the room after he dropped Mary on the bed, but he did not. When Mary’s mother entered the room all his fears, all the prejudices he had to face in his life came to his mind and he panicked.

He turned and a hysterical terror seized him, as though he were falling from a great height in a dream (87).

He had almost managed this delicate situation. But then he became aware that he had accidently killed Mary.

The reality of the room fell from him; the vast city of white people that sprawled outside took its place. She was dead and he had killed her. He was a murderer, a Negro murderer, a black murderer. He had killed a white woman. (Wright, 87)

His next reaction could also be interpreted as the reaction of a trapped animal. He tries to get rid of the body; he decapitates Mary’s body and burns it in the fireplace. Nevertheless, I do not interpret this as the reaction of an animal. An animal does not try to hide its evidences. Bigger was aware of his situation. He was at least able to thing one step ahead. Otherwise, he would not have tried to blame Jan for the murder. He just would have fled.

Biggers actions were not the plot of a criminal genius, but in his own bounded logic, it was something like a plan. He acts on a very thin line between the terrorized reactions of a trapped animal and the actions of somebody who is aware of his situation and knows to what end it will lead when will be captured.

His very thin plan turns out to be a failure and he once again finds himself in a situation in which he is trapped like an animal. When he is finally debunked as the murder of Mary, he is hunted down like an animal. In the eyes of his pursuers, he is an animal. Like Bigger hunted the rat in the beginning now they are hunting him. They closed of the Negro neighborhood and systematically looked in every “hole”. In the end, their skillet was too big for Bigger.

Richard Wright plays with this picture of a trapped animal. The battle against the rat is not the only comparison. In addition, the reappearing cat draws the picture of Bigger as a trapped rat. Society is the cat that plays its cruel game with Bigger.  But it is dangerous to define Bigger as an animal, even if his actions seem to be animalistic. It is even more dangerous to make the circumstances Bigger grew up in (alone) responsible, like Max does it in the trial.

“Do we think that the laws of human nature stopped operating after we had got our feet upon our road? Have we had to struggle so hard for our right to happiness that we have all but destroyed the conditions under which we and others can still be happy? This Negro Boy, Bigger Thomas, is part of a furious blazing in our land. He is a hot jet of life that spattered itself in futility against a cold wall. (Wright, 399)

First of all, constructing Bigger animal-like was a decision to step away from the typical Negro-novels of this time. In these novels, the authors tried to present a positive image of Negros in America. They were written to show the white readers that the black people are not as bad as the majority thought. These novels were public relation for the black cause. However, Richard Wright did not want to write PR-novels anymore. For him it was time to take the next step; to describe the African-Americans as they really were, not as wild animals, not as noble savages, and not as role models as well.

He tried to paint a realistic picture in the tradition of naturalistic literature.  But to be able to leave the “role-model literature” behind he needed to take radical step – he needed an “anti-hero”. Only with this radical change, he was able to startle the readers. To show that the life of Negros was in many ways the same as the life of white people, he needed an ambivalent character.

Of course, Bigger is complaining about all this terrible racial discrimination.  And to a certain point he is right, as well as Max is right in his final plea. Nevertheless, many white criminals are like Bigger. By making Bigger equal to them Wright was taking a step away from separation. Away from the rituals, black protesters were conducting for decades.

Wright also needed an anti-hero for max final plea, this monumental prayer against the social circumstances, the discrimination of the poor and the discrimination of the Negros. He needed a character that is guilty of his crimes. Only with a protagonist like Bigger Max is able to show to what end the current course of society leads. In Max’s opinion society turned Bigger into an animal.

But what message would it send, if the court would follow this argumentation? For the publicity, it would mean that every male Negro (all the “Boyz n the Hood”) who grows up under the same circumstances than Bigger would be a possible threat, a menace to society. This conclusion would follow the negative idiom “the leopard does not change its spots”. And it will lead to tragic events like the shooting of Trayvon Martin, who was possibly shot because he was young and black. Right-wing commentators will justify such killings by explaining that the victim should not have worn a hoodie sweater.

Not every male Negro who grew up under comparable circumstances will turn out as a Bigger Thomas. Most of them turn out as integrated, hard working and good willing members of society. Nevertheless, they will be stigmatized by prejudices against poor, black males.

In his book “Being and Nothingness” Jean Paul Satre wrote that we are doomed to freedom. In his opinion, there are no circumstances that determinate a person in his actions so strong that he is not longer responsible for his actions. Neuroscientist might object but I am certain that mental healthy person should be accountable for his actions. Otherwise, the whole coexistence of our society is threatened.

In the end, when he sits in his cell and speaks with Max, Bigger says that he admires the Nazis because they are doing something. He tries to justify his actions with the argument that he had to do something. That is not something an animal would to. Bigger says: “What I killed for must’ve been good!” … Max’s Eyes were full of terror (Wright, 429).

After Biggers words Max realizes how wrong he was with his plea. How he has helped Bigger to justify his cruel actions. The terror in his eyes is the reaction to his own argumentation. By giving Bigger an argumentation to justify his action, Max also gave it to every other criminal like Bigger.

Richard Wright has constructed Bigger animal-like. He has done it by comparing him to a rat and by bringing him into situations in which he is trapped like an animal, in which he can only react in panic. He needed an animal-like character to deliver his message about the situation of society effectively. However, Biggers actions were more than just like the panicked reactions of an animal. He also showed that he was able to plot against other people, for example by blaming Jan for the murder.

I understand why Wright constructed his novel in this way, but I think it is dangerous to follow this argumentation, because it would stigmatize every young black male who grew up under poor conditions. In the end, it would just amplify the prejudices against the blacks in America.