Meeting Emil

It's a very long time since I first had the pleasure of meeting Emil and the detectives. I was probably about 10 the last time I read Erich Kästner's novel. Kästner was a German journalist and writer of children's stories during the Weimar regime. Emil, first published in 1929, was one of his most popular novels, and was the only novel that he wrote that avoided being burned by the Nazis (probably because it was too popular to burn).

Kästner was a pacifist, and had at an early stage signed up to an anti-Nazi organization, and as such was viewed with some suspicion. This makes Emil and the detectives even more poignant, as it's a tale of good triumphing over evil. Its depiction of Berlin and Berliners reminded me very strongly of the Ealing comedies of the late 1940s / early 1950s. They depict a Britain that isn't real, but rather the type of country that we would all probably rather like to live in - a land of kindness and goodness, of friendship, and of strangers working together for good. A land in which everything is rather nicer than it really is; and this is very much the land of Emil.

Young Emil Tischbein travels from a provincial town to Berlin to visit his grandmother. En route he is robbed of the money that his mother gave him for his grandmother and his fare home. Emil is determined to catch the thief, but after chalking a moustache on a statue back home, he is understandably reluctant to get the police involved. He sets off by himself to corner the thief, and is quickly adopted by a gang of Berlin boys all eager to help.

The story is cleverly constructed, funny and incredibly endearing. No wonder therefore that Emil has continued to be a favourite well into the 21st century. If its moralising occasionally feels a little clunky to modern susceptibilities, it still remains an enchanting read. As a children's classic it is clear why it has remained so popular, but for an adult re-reading it, there is much to learn from this novel. More than anything it struck me as a great social history of the period. Several of the children are fatherless, or are living with step-dads, presumably mainly as a result of the First World War. And poverty in Emil's case is a familiar friend, hence the importance of the loss of the money. All of which point to what would happen shortly in Germany.

Despite the difficulties of Emil's life though, he is a happy boy, and the happiness and joy of this novel shine. A cheering start to the New Year.


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