In the title poem of his 1960 collection Landessprache (Language of the Country) Hans Magnus Enzensberger examines divided postwar Germany, in particular the west, where the economic recovery enabled consumerism to distract the population from an immediate past that many preferred not to dwell on. Enzensberger is brutally frank. His country is a “murderers’ den / where in haste and impotence the calendar tears its own leaves, / where the past rots and reeks in the rubbish disposal unit / and the future grits its false teeth, / … all because things are looking up …”

This sense of things seems to have been both widespread and unpopular. To say, as Enzensberger did, that “it was like living with an enormous corpse in the cupboard” was to risk the disfavour of a state whose immediate predecessor had been in the habit of burning books and killing writers along with anyone else it cared to get hold of. The conservative politician Franz-Josef Strauss, a veteran of the Russian Front and rival of Helmut Kohl, referred to Enzensberger, Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll as Schmeissfliegen: blowflies.

It is hard to imagine a cultural row having such significance in Britain. Some may find that reassuring, while others will see it as evidence of a persistent malaise, a blend of timidity, mean-spiritedness and servility, whose latest symptom is the 2015 general election. An Enzensberger looking at the English electorate might have reached for Yeats’s comments to the audience at the Abbey theatre in 1926: “You have disgraced yourselves again.” Certainly, Enzensberger does not see his task as being to comfort and beguile. His language often has a Brechtian plainness. “Karl Heinrich Marx” is an unadorned portrait by an idiosyncratic adherent: “I see you betrayed / by your disciples: / only your enemies / remained what they were”, but Enzensberger also reveals an affinity for the folktale and fable found in Grass’s poems. / Sean O’Brien, The Guardian

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