Child of All Nations


Child of All Nations

Translated with an Afterword by Michael Hofmann


an imprint of


The translator would like to thank the antique bookseller Christoph Hoffmeister (himself no antique) for the introduction to Keun, and Jakob Hofmann, then thirteen, this translation’s first reader and editor.

M. H.

Published by the Penguin Group
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First published 1938
Published by Claasen Verlag 1981
This translation published in Penguin Classics 2008

The moral rights of the author and translator have been asserted

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

EISBN: 978–0–141–90882–3

Child of All Nations

I get funny looks from hotel managers, but that’s not because I’m naughty; it’s the fault of my father. Everyone says: that man ought never to have got married.

At first they treat me as if I was a rich lady’s Pekinese. The chambermaids make kissy mouths at me and little mwah mwah noises. The maître d’ slips me postage stamps, which I save, because I might be able to sell them later. The man in the lift lets me press the button to our floor, and he doesn’t interfere, much. And the waiters brandish table-napkins at me in a friendly sort of way. But all that comes to an end when my father has to leave to raise money, and my mother and me are left behind, and the bill still hasn’t been paid. We are left behind as surety, and my father says we’ve got as much riding on us as if we’d been fur coats or diamonds.

Then the waiters in the hotel restaurant no longer brandish their napkins in that jolly way; instead they flick them at our table. Mama says they do it to clear the crumbs away, but it looks to me more like what you do to keep away pesky cats that have their eyes on the roast.

We hardly dare go to the restaurant any more, Mama and me. But there’s nowhere else we can go, if we’re not to starve. Because we haven’t got a single franc left, and can’t afford to buy any more cheap cheese or apples or bread to sneak up to our room.

My father took all our money with him on his journey to Prague. ‘Eat and drink. You’ve got credit here, don’t worry about a thing – I’ve got it all sorted out,’ is what he said as he stood on the railway platform in Brussels. We were wearing our thin coats, because they were the warmest we had. We felt cold and worried as we kissed him goodbye. His fair hair blew about in a laughing sort of way as he leaned out of the window and waved back at us. Mama cried.

In the hotel restaurant my mother doesn’t dare order anything cheap, because that doesn’t go down well with waiters, and we can’t afford to irritate people even more than we have been doing anyway. We’ve stopped taking the lift as well, because we can’t give tips, and we always rush past the porters. We don’t hand in our room key either, because we don’t want to spend a single second in front of the desk, and the maître d’ has stopped giving me stamps too. My mother says his face looks more like a final demand to her than a human face.

My father’s been gone a week – we don’t know where he is, he hasn’t managed to write to us yet. Three days ago, though, I got a parcel from him from Budapest, because it was my birthday. I was ten. Maybe my father sent me a doll or an embroidered dress, but we don’t know what it is, because there was duty to pay on the parcel, so we couldn’t afford to collect it. My mother didn’t want to borrow the money from the maître d’; she’s not good at that sort of thing. My father’s better. Once he even borrowed a hundred francs from a postman. It’s an awful thing if a parcel comes, and you can’t even open it to see what’s inside. It’s my parcel, but I can’t get at it. Still, it looks like we’ll be in Belgium for a while, so maybe I can get it later.

My father always manages to get hold of money from somewhere. And he always comes back to us too. I don’t think he ever completely forgets about us. That time in Ostende he didn’t forget about me completely either, but he nearly did.

It was summer 1936 that we were in Ostende. I found loads of pretty shells, and starfish, and little baby crabs, and I made an aquarium out of them. But I wasn’t supposed to take it to Brussels, because I was travelling with a large doll’s kitchen and a toy grocery store and a couple of tortoises, as it was.

At first in Ostende I didn’t have any other children to play with, because they spoke French and I couldn’t understand them. I only speak German, and most of that is actually Kölsch.*

We left Germany when my father couldn’t stand it any more, because he writes books and articles for newspapers. We emigrated to find freedom. We’re never going to go back to Germany. Anyway, we don’t need to, because the world is a very big place.

Most of my father’s money from books is in Holland, but that’s almost irrelevant, because he’s usually spent it before it arrives. So my father says he has to come up with other connections and sources of money. My mother and I are a burden on my father, but seeing as he’s got us, he means to keep us.

‘My plump little goldfinch,’ he says to my mother, because she’s got flyaway golden hair, a round soft bosom like a bird’s and frightened eyes, and she always looks as though she’s on the point of flying away. She doesn’t seem to sit firmly and heavily, the way people usually sit; she perches nervously like a bird on a twig.

I look a lot like my mother, only she has bluer eyes than me, and bigger legs, and she’s bigger all round. She wears her hair combed back, and in a knot at the back of her head. My hair is short and unruly. My mother’s much prettier than I am, but I don’t cry so much.


Ostende has one fancy beach and a smaller, cheaper one for people of slenderer means. In either case, you don’t get the use of the sea for nothing; at most you’re allowed to gaze at it, like the passing clouds in the sky. I’d love to lie on a cloud one day, but you can only do that when you’re dead. You can go in the sea when you’re alive, but you need money. At least, that’s the way it was in Ostende. Probably you are allowed to go in the water, but only in your clothes, and only as far in as you can lift them. Of course, that’s not much use, because you can’t pick up a dress very far; it’s not respectable. Because we wanted to go into the water respectably without our clothes and up to our necks, we put my father to expense. He thinks bathing is unhealthy. In Ostende he preferred to sit in a café on the beach, where he drank something brown that tasted really nasty and isn’t even supposed to be on sale in Belgium.

My father also said he didn’t like Brussels, because of the poor standard of drinks there. But they have wonderful things that I’ve never tasted before. Sweet juices made out of exotic fruits like pineapple and grapefruit.

My father writes for our living. In Ostende he was working on a new book, but he couldn’t finish it, because we had too many worries. When my mother and me went to collect my father at lunchtime, his eyes sometimes looked as if they had swum far out to sea and weren’t completely back yet. My mother and I are both very good swimmers, but my father’s eyes swim much further than either of us. Often he would send us away again, because he didn’t want to eat anything. A settled life makes it impossible for him to work, and the thought of it disgusts him. We only eat once a day, because that’s cheaper, and it’s perfectly adequate. I’m always hungry anyway, even if I eat seven times a day.

We treated ourselves to the fancy beach once, where you get changed in a castle where the walls and floors are of shiny gems, and little fountains pop up like leaping flowers. But the fancy beach is just as dirty as the inexpensive one, and it doesn’t have any more shells either. Every morning my mother would lie in the sun on the poor people’s beach with pieces of orange peel on her skin. Her skin got to be like brown velvet.

Sometimes aeroplanes would hum over our heads, very heavy and droning. I wished one might fall down – even though the thought of that scared me. Thank God it didn’t happen. Big ships sailed out of the port to go to England. I often used to stand and wave to them. What I liked best were the white sailing boats, because they looked like the little pair of butterfly wings my grandmother owns. She has them on her sewing-box, where they’re held by a little blue prince.

Sometimes I’d be scared my mother might be trampled to death, because the small beach was so crammed with balls and people and dogs chasing back and forth. Once, my mother was picked up and tossed by a wave, but I never was.

I played in the water and touched the waves. At first they feel ghastly cold, but they end up making me feel warmer than the sun. Once I kicked a pale-blue jellyfish in two, because of the way it sparkled, and because I felt like destroying something, and also I wanted there suddenly to be lots and lots of jellyfish. Then I spat into the sea and watched my spit floating, and I felt ashamed of myself and thought I’d dirtied the sea. But then a wave washed over my spit, and it was gone.

I unscrewed a wheel from a really old bathing cart so that I could play at surfing and do proper cartwheels. The wheel was almost coming off by itself. Three other children helped me. While we were working together, I suddenly learned French, and we all made excited noises together. I was too excited to feel embarrassed in front of the other children, and all at once I could speak as well as they could. ‘Ça va?’ they said. ‘Ça va, ça va!’ I shouted back. Now I know more French words than I can count. I don’t know what they all mean, but that doesn’t matter.

So Belgian children can play as well. We stuck the wheel in the sand and arranged shells between the spokes and seaweed, and sang, ‘Allez allez au bon marché’. Lots of children came and bought shells that they paid for with other shells. And the big horses that pull the bathing carts trotted round about us. They didn’t step on anything.

There was trouble later on, because my father had to pay for the wheel, after some great waves came and washed it away. My father was terribly strict. He said I would be the ruin of the whole family, and it was up to me to be twice and thrice as good, so that I made a good impression in a foreign country. Even though I know you make a much better impression in a foreign country if you aren’t so terribly good. But of course grown-ups aren’t going to know that, because they don’t spend their time playing with foreign children.

I cried over the wheel, and my father had to comfort me and take me along to the Renommée. The Renommée is a wonderful restaurant, and so hideously expensive that the waiters outnumber the diners. (They’re better dressed than the diners, too.) The walls are covered with mirrors and the tablecloths are so starched and white that I was afraid to look at them for fear they might get dirty. There are lots of glasses and flowers on the tables, and the napkins are built up into little towers. I prefer tables where they leave you some elbow room. But my father had to eat some special caviar and drink a bottle of some special champagne, because he felt bad; and that’s why he took me there.

My father felt bad because he hadn’t eaten anything for several days on account of his money worries, and because he had been telephoning round foreign cities without success. That morning he had said: ‘That’s it now, I have lost all hope.’ He had borrowed another hundred francs from the porter, who is a friend of his, and with that he could pay what he owed in the café at the Place d’Armes, where he always goes to work in the afternoons. At lunchtime he had to go back to the porter to borrow more money to pay for my bathing-cart wheel that was washed away.

Then my father suddenly walked into our hotel room where I was crying and my mother was groaning, and said to my mother: ‘Well, a miracle has happened – it might yet save us. I’ve just had a call from Tulpe. You don’t know him; well, I don’t know him either, I crossed paths with him once in Berlin. He reads my books, heard I was in town, called me. He travels in ladies’ underwear, I believe; probably has a bank account – rock-solid character. Two thousand francs will be enough to get us out of trouble. I can pay him back with the rights to the Polish translation; the money for that is due in the next few weeks. Then I send the publishers a hundred pages in Amsterdam – when will you have a moment to type them? We’ll stand to get three hundred guilders. I’m meeting the man at six, I’ll call you in the hotel at eight – I feel so ill, everything is so disgusting, the man is bound to be sticky. I have to go and prepare myself for the meeting, gather my strength, get myself into the right frame of mind. Give me a kiss – no, don’t. Eight o’clock then – why is she crying like that? I’ll take her along.’

In the Renommée I was allowed to eat wild strawberries with whipped cream and drink real coffee with just a soupçon of milk in it, like grown-ups do. My father ate caviar, which I don’t like because it has a fishy taste, and he drank two bottles of champagne. After that he felt better, and went off. ‘Wait for me here,’ he said to me. ‘I’m just getting some money to pay the bill. I’ll be back in an hour – tell the waiter you want an ice cream, or would you rather have a piece of cake instead?’

I had a dish of ice cream and waited, and my father didn’t come. I felt terribly bored; out of petulance I ate some cake, and waited a bit longer. Once, a cat sat down next to me, a grey cat; I petted her. I was all alone in the restaurant; the waiter came along one time and gave my table a brush. I wondered what everything cost in the restaurant, and whether one naughty girl would be enough to pay for it.

The skies outside turned red. My mother always says: the angels are laughing. But I wasn’t in a mood for laughing, and my mother couldn’t find me. She didn’t know where I was. She had an assignation with Frau Fiedler in the big Café Wellington.

We know Frau Fiedler because her husband is another penniless writer. I don’t like Herr Fiedler, because he once said to my parents in the café on the Place d’Armes: ‘Thank God we don’t have any children ourselves.’ Maybe he thinks my parents should just throw me away. I think that was mean of him. He often buys me ice cream cones. He always tries to pat me on the head. I eat his ice cream, but when he tries to pat my head, I push him away.

I no longer knew what to do. How long does a child have to sit still for in order to pay a bill? I sat on a green sofa covered in stiff, ridged material. My father kept not coming; I thought I might have to spend the night all alone on the sofa. With that I would have paid all our debts, and could leave in the morning. We would be saved.

The lights were turned on, all at once it was raining light. The waiters rigged up a Christmas table in the middle of the restaurant. Thousands of crates of light wood were piled up, containing peaches and grapes and apples, and thousands of dishes were put out, full of brown and green and white sauces for things to swim around in. Also there were chicken legs made into jellyfish, and lots of horrid things for grown-ups, hams and terribly long sausages, peas and flowers.

I got up from my place and walked round the Christmas display. I kept getting in the way of the waiters. I identified an apricot I would have liked to try. But I didn’t touch it, because I knew all that costs money. It was only at my grandmother’s that you could have things for free, and that’s a long time ago now.

A woman turned up who was gaudy and glittery and laughed a lot. A serious dark man swarmed all over her like an octopus, three distinguished waiters ran up to her with bent backs and drove her back on to a sofa. The table was moved out – the couple shuffled round it and sat down. Waiters moved the table back so that the couple couldn’t get off the sofa: they were trapped.

More diners arrived. I couldn’t stand to watch any more, yet I couldn’t go to sleep on my sofa either. Some waiters took me to the cloakroom. They talked to me, but I couldn’t understand them. One of them knew German, but I didn’t understand him. I tried my French, but they couldn’t understand that, clearly because they weren’t children. I just understood ‘Papa’. So I too said ‘Papa’. And then we all said ‘Papa’ together.

I was seated at a small table. Behind me the waiters were clinking around with knives and forks, next to me a woman in black sat at the till and twiddled around with it. I was so tired I didn’t know which I wanted more, to sleep or cry. Then a waiter gave me an apple. I would have preferred my apricot, because apricots are soft and not so strenuous to eat. As I ate the apple, I suddenly had to cry and fall asleep.

I didn’t notice how someone carried me into the cloakroom. I suppose it’s a miracle my father found me, because he didn’t give up a hat or coat and so didn’t have a cloakroom ticket. All at once he was there, kissing me and exclaiming: ‘Did you really think your father would have forgotten all about you?’

I said, ‘Yes.’

‘Can you understand how a man might live for something like that, Herr Tulpe?’ asked my father. A little dark-haired man drilled his fingers in my hair, which I don’t like. There was another man there as well, who said: ‘I think it’s best to let sleeping children lie.’

‘But it’s only nine o’clock,’ said my father, and paid the bill so that I could go back to my mother. As we left, a waiter said, ‘Au revoir, mademoisellé’ to me.

We went to the café on the Place d’Armes, where I was allowed to spend ten francs on the slot machine. But I didn’t get any benefit from it, because I wasn’t allowed to turn the crank myself. My father always cranked, and it’s the cranking that’s the fun of it. Machines like that are the greatest thing. A thousand presents are hidden behind glass in little green baubles. Over them is a crane with a pair of mechanical claws. You have to put a franc in the machine to move the crane and pick out a present with its claws, which it hardly ever does, because they’re mostly too low for it to reach. The claws have hardly any strength in them either; it can drive you wild.

At ten my mother came along. She was crying because I’d been lost and my father hadn’t called. She said his thoughtlessness bordered on callousness. She didn’t want to have a go at the machine either, she just wanted to take me straight home to bed.

My father squeezed us into a taxi. I was thinking, we could easily have walked home and saved the fare. The taxi driver couldn’t leave because my father was still standing on the pavement. He was holding the hand of my mother, who was sitting next to me on the dark taxi seat. The music was loud on the Place d’Armes, a little boy kept going round the bandstand on a scooter; there were lots of little children sitting on the pavement who were smaller than I was. They didn’t have to go to bed yet.

My father was saying to my mother: ‘I’ll tell you everything later. I’ve got a little money – don’t ask, it was ghastly. Poor Tulpe is having an awful time of it – delightful chap by the way, you’ll meet him soon. It turns out he was hoping for money from me; thank God I could help him out. That saved his bacon. At that point he remembered he knew a man by the name of Max Popp who lives in Brussels and sometimes comes to Ostende for weekends. What he does then is sit on the pier by your beach and breathe in the healthful sea air, poor devil. Apart from that, he’s not a bad man.

‘Thank God we ran into Popp on the pier. He used to own a calendar factory in Thuringia, but now he’s living in Brussels. There’s something a little repulsive about him, but you get used to it. He doesn’t take his drink too well. The red rash is apparently something he picked up at the barber’s. Makes him a bit shy of being introduced to you. He has a most exquisite girlfriend, very delicate, with a lovely face – ow, why did you pull your hand away like that? You scratched me! I’d like to give her a little present tomorrow before she leaves, I’ve no idea what – will you turn your mind to it, Annie? Maybe you’ll think of something.

‘I’m just dictating Popp some of my advertising concepts – you know, if something like that comes off, we suddenly stand to make a lot of money. Popp has connections with department stores in Paris and Brussels, and offers them advertising concepts.

‘He lives in a tiny rundown hotel. He’s bound to have money – only rich people live as frugally as that. Tulpe didn’t think it was possible that he would come good. Will you excuse me the details now, Annie, I have to go back to the café. And at eleven I’m meeting Monsieur Corbet, our nice porter. A sweet fellow, a real gentleman, and fond of a drink. I asked him out to an Italian restaurant for a good bottle of wine. I think it’s best not to introduce Popp and Tulpe to him.’

My mother wanted the driver to set off, because it’s awfully expensive to keep a lady idling in a taxi. It’s much more than if it’s just a man. My mother is always cross about the expense when my father gives a man friend a lift home in a taxi, and she has a bit of a fit. But when my father gives a woman friend a lift home in a taxi, then my mother doesn’t say anything at all. Even though that upsets her much more.

We drove slowly along the Rue de la Chapelle to the port area, where we were staying in a nice hotel – not a shabby little one like Herr Popp. My mother would have preferred to stay on the beach in a little pension, but my father is always set on a proper hotel, where he doesn’t have to take his meals, and where there are porters who will write and deliver letters for him, even though my mother always offers to type for him. That’s why we have our very own typewriter, even though it was very expensive, and only broke down once, after I secretly practised on it.

But my father almost never asks my mother to type for him. One time he said to her: ‘If a man lives with a woman, he shouldn’t have her working for him. She always imagines she’s suffering anyway. And so he can’t get nervous, or be annoyed about her mistakes or even be matter of fact with her, but only ever respond with gratitude and emotion, and I don’t feel like that. It even bothers me when you sew on a button for me, Annie. Frankly I’d rather have the chambermaid do it. She’ll do it better, and she’ll be happy with a tip, and I can be friendly to her and say thank you, without her coming over all moved and hurling herself at me or bursting into tears. Oh, if only you’d let me do more for you.’

‘You’re very unfair,’ said my mother.

‘Maybe so,’ said my father, ‘but save me from the ministrations of solicitous females.’

During this scene, we were sitting in a little café by the port. Women pushed carts of prawns and smooth flat fish that smelled nasty and dripped pale blood. The fish were hung up next to us, like items of laundry out to dry. Fishermen walked over the beach. They wore reddish-yellow jackets – the house of my grandmother in Cologne is that sort of colour.

There was another café right next door to ours, and beyond that another one. In fact there was a whole line of these little cafés: in front of them were little tables for visitors and little stalls with heaps and heaps of sea creatures. Opposite us, but not too near, was the black railway station. A breeze carried the smells of the locomotives to where we were sitting. The hanging fish stirred, the sky trembled slightly, and was very blue. My scalp felt chilly because my hair was still damp after swimming; my mother’s hair was still wet as well.

Mama looked as if she’d spent a long time sitting out in the rain. She had unmoving sad eyes. Slowly she raised her hand to clutch the air, then let it fall heavily in her lap.

I drank fizzy water, which tickled my nose, and bumped glasses with my mother, but she never even noticed. She’d ordered five langoustines. And now she wasn’t eating them. My father picked up one of the pink langoustines and slowly, without speaking, removed one of its black button eyes. I thought that was disgusting.

‘Don’t you love me any more?’ asked my mother. Thereupon she pulled out the langoustine’s other eye, and I ran off because a tiny little white puppy was running around on the street. I wanted to stroke it and play with it, and above all save it from the big trucks that were driving past all the time.

I wished the little puppy didn’t belong to anyone. That was stupid of me, of course. Everything cute belongs to someone. The puppy belonged to the newspaper seller who keeps shouting out: ‘Écho de Paris!’ Later, I was able to visit the puppy at his house.

My parents called me because they wanted to go. My father paid for the langoustines, even though there were still some left on the plate. My mother seized my hand and marched down the uneven pavement with me. My father dawdled along behind us – we kept turning round to check, and then he walked even more slowly.

Sometimes my father loves us, and sometimes he doesn’t. When he doesn’t, we can’t do anything about it, my mother and me. Nothing is any good when he doesn’t love us. Then we’re not allowed to cry in his presence or laugh, we mustn’t give him anything, or take anything from him either. Any steps we might take only have the effect of delaying even more the time when he will love us again. Because he always comes back to us. We just have to hold still and wait, and then everything takes care of itself. There’s nothing else we can do anyway.