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British journalist Roger, stationed in Berlin, is tired of his job, namely writing articles on German issues, preferably Nazi related, for British newspapers. He feels he needs some time out and takes a sabbatical. His three-quarter German/one-quarter Italian girl-friend Lena, an interior designer, has decided to slow down a bit, too. Before he can think through the question of 'What now?', Lena flabbergasts him with the declaration that she's inherited a house. Roger knows instantly that she can only talk about Todi in Umbria but has to come round to the insight that it's in fact situated in the small town of Alt-Globnitz, eighty miles east of Berlin, in the Land Brandenburg, formerly part of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) and before that belonging to Prussia. In short, it's in the back of beyond - or as the Germans say, "where fox and hare say Good-night to each other'.
The house is actually called Schloss (castle), but it's really only a big villa, it has fifteen rooms, a hole in the roof, damaged stairs and windows, in short, it's more a ruin and a money sink than something to be elated about. But Lena is enthusiastic, drivels on finding her ancestral roots and expects Roger to join in. He can't believe it, but then she shows a photo of a pond, a frog pond! This sells Alt-Globnitz to him as he's been an amphibianophile (frog lover) since childhood.
Together with his friend Harry, a fellow journalist, he hatches the idea of turning the Schloss into a B & B for British fans of the German writer Theodor Fontane who lived in London and Scotland for some years, also worked as a journalist and later wrote the book March of Brandenburg in which he describes his ramblings through and fascination of the part of the country where the Schloss is situated.
But first the Schloss must be renovated which means that the monetary problem must be solved. Maybe the British Embassy can help? It can, modestly, but only on the condition that some kind of British - Brandenburg cultural event is staged. This is what the novel is about: Making the Schloss habitable with a group of Ossi (East German) workers and getting some men together who may or may not be made into a cricket team which is going to fight against British ex-pats mainly working in the Embassy in Berlin.
So everything is going smoothly? Not at all, the newcomers have an enemy or enemies in Alt-Globnitz who want them to disappear asap. Rats appear in the attic, the workers go on strike, the first tourist group suffers from food-poisoning, the frogs aren't protected when they march to their pond to mate. Admittedly, there are more horrible catastrophes going on in the world, but in the small world of Alt-Globnitz this is enough to stir up the former graveyard peace.
Should you find To Prussia with Love on the travel shelf of a book-shop, tell the shop-assistant that it's wrong there, it should be on the fiction shelf (or take it there yourself). The fact that a place is mentioned in a title, doesn't make a book a travelogue. In the case of the book in question travelling is the last thing the protagonists have in mind, staying is what they're keen on.
If you skim through the book and find that the main protagonist's name is the same as the author's, don't think that you're holding an autobiography in your hands. It's only a trick to beef up the story. I was reminded of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Everything is Illuminated in which a young man called Jonathan Safran Foer visits Ukraine to find his Jewish roots just like the author did, yet, the book is fiction, certainly with autobiographical traces, but not more. You won't find Alt-Globnitz on a map of Brandenburg, it's a fictitious place, but the name is well chosen. Place names ending in -(t)z are widespread in the east of Germany, they point to former Slavic settlements.
What I have to admire is Roger Boyes' profound knowledge of contemporary Germany. He drops a lot of names and they're all spot on. He's lived long enough in the country to know what Germans love, hate, are indifferent about, think secretly, utter openly. To Prussia with Love concentrates on the Ossis and what has become of the former GDR, how much its influence still lingers and influences people's behaviour after more than 20 years. He's right down to the Bergfest (mountain party) workers celebrate on Wednesday when they've reached the climax of the workweek, from there on it's down, directly into the weekend. Boyles packs so much of such trivia in the story that the reader can assume he's proud of his knowledge and works off his index cards.
His narrator's view (I wouldn't be surprised if also the author's) is not friendly and sympathetic, on the contrary, he loves adding negative cliché after negative cliché. But doesn't each cliché have a true core? Jokes thrive on clichés, they only become dangerous if they don't allow individuals to be just that, i.e., individuals but see them as part of a stereotypical group. The Ossis aren't opposed to the Wessis in this book but to some British specimen who all get their just deserts. The whole personnel in this novel is challenged one way or another, so there's a kind of negative poetic justice. The author gets my thumbs up when he makes Roger's editor say, "...more Nazis, please! Hitler is the darling of the Internet, the all-time favourite: Adolf sells." and then makes Roger reflect, "He was right, of course. Britain's unhealthy fascination for Hitler was no longer just a historical oddity. It had become scientific marketing. The Nazis used to shout: One Reich, one people, one Führer! Now, to keep up Internet traffic, we had adapted the slogan to: One click, one Führer..." British readers will not stumble when reading the novel, German readers should always have the Brits' Hitler and Nazi obsession in mind while reading because Boyes doesn't only mention it, he also serves it repeatedly.
The story is a farce and should be read like one. The characters are rather one-dimensional and don't surprise much. When creating Darren, the cook, Boyes must have had his nose too deep in a glass of good German beer, and the editor must have been dozing when supposedly reading about him. He's a petty criminal from Brixton who has to disappear for a while from the grip of London police. Twice he's seventeen years old, then, some pages later, he's nineteen. He's black, although his uncle Harry is white. "He was adopted." Aha. I wonder at what age? He lives with a white family but knows everything about Caribbean cuisine and swaggers about black families.
The last word belongs to Henning When, German Comedy Ambassador to Great Britain, "Boyes went to East Germany so no-one else has to. Danke."
Alarm bells should have sounded when I picked up Roger Boyes's "To Prussia with Love" in a bookstore and I thought to myself "this sounds a bit contrived". Call me naïve but when I browse the travel writing section in Waterstones, I tend to believe that those books are based on the writers' real life experiences. Not so, it seems; at least not if this book is anything to go by.
It all starts off quite reasonably. Boyes is a British journalist living in Berlin and submitting stories about German life to his editor back in Blighty; rather fortuitously, just as he's yearning to do something different with his life, his German interior designer girlfriend informs him that she's inherited a country house, not, as he hopes in rural Italy, but in Brandenburg ( in eastern Germany to most people these days but, as luck would have it for those looking for a catchy title for a book, it used to go by the name of Prussia). It should come as no surprise to learn that the house turns out to be only barely standing and surrounded by an urban jungle. It's too big for Roger and Lena to live in and, besides, they'd still need to have an income so a plan is hatched: to turn the schloss into a British themed bed and breakfast. Just imagine what humorous situations could arise from such a scheme!
Unsurprisingly the locals are indifferent at best although someone is clearly out to sabotage the scheme and it appears that the mayor's office might be a good place to start looking. Harry, a colleague of Roger's who has an endless stream of ideas, supplies their first employee, a teenage relative who has been in trouble with the police back home and who needs something to keep him on the straight and narrow; not until the young delinquent arrives on the door step do Roger and Lena find out he's West Indian, a fact that's likely to create a stir in the backwater of Alt Globnitz. Hoping in one fell swoop to improve relations with the locals and secure some funding for the fostering of Anglo German friendship from the British ambassador's office, a cricket match is organised between the Brits and the Germans to take place on a former Russian minefield. Will Roger and Lena's plans go up in smoke?
If you believe this nonsense you'll believe anything. Seriously, the OED will remove the word gullible from the dictionary and replace it with your name. Alt-Globnitz? Now I've heard some amusing place names (better still, I swear Hungarian train station announcers start their announcements with the words "Semi boner") but Alt-Globnitz didn't sound right; and when Boyes says that it's twinned with Hastings and Dunkirk (both the sites of two humiliating defeats for the English) you know that you're having your leg pulled. So I Googled it. Alt-Globnitz is a complete invention, a fiction; just like the rest of this tale. Quite why the publisher has chosen to market it as travel writing is beyond me. Perhaps the combined facts that it's horribly predictable, depicts grossly stereotypical characters and isn't that funny might explain it. Even labelling the book as a farce does nothing to hide the fact that this is far-fetched nonsense.
I laughed infrequently and cringed a whole lot more, and only afterwards when I bothered to do some more Googling did I learn the truth. The book originally came out in Germany with the aim of entertaining Germans. So when Boyes is so depressed at ending up with a country pile in Prussia it's because he's encouraging those in what was West Germany to look down on the Ostis, who as we are repeatedly reminded are lazy, suspicious, scaredy-cats (when someone plants rats in the attic the Ossi workmen immediately down tools). If that's not funny enough you can always laugh at the crazy Englishmen with their weird games, or their eccentric aristocrats who populate the embassy. Of course, since the book is marketed in the travel writing genre, the subtleties (or not) are lost.
I don't need Germans to tell me what is so funny about English people (or rather I don't need an English man to make up what he believes Germans find funny), especially if it's as poorly observed as this. Maybe if Boyes had been a bit more subtle in his caricatures and situations this could have been a better read. I did learn one thing of note: according to Boyes East German workmen stop at noon on Wednesdays to eat cake, they call this a "Bergfest" because after the uphill climb to Wednesday lunch it's all downhill to the weekend. It's a nice story but I don't trust Boyes anymore: I'll go and Google it.