The subtitle of Wilhelm Raabe's Stopfkuchen is " a sea- and murder story." But don't expect a shallow whodunit because of that. While the reader is still trying to sort out the complex time and space levels of events, he realizes that the novel has an even deeper level...
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1948 and 2010
While German readers may initially think of a tasty cake when hearing the word “Stopfkuchen”, the title of Wilhelm Raabe’s novel does not actually refer to a dish. It is rather a sea- and murder story (“See- und Mordgeschichte”) as the subtitle already suggests. Stopfkuchen is the former nickname of the protagonist Heinrich Schaumann, whose life story is told by the narrator Eduard in “Stopfkuchen”.
Eduard is aboard a ship from Germany to South Africa. It is his journey home and he decides to write down the story of Stopfkuchen. He then reports on his latest visit in his old home town but also on his childhood there. The centre of his tale is his former companion Heinrich Schaumann, who was always bullied because of his size, his alleged laziness and stupidity. Now, as a grown-up, Schaumann (once ‘Stopfkuchen’) has become a well-respected person in his town – not least because he could solve a murder that happened many years ago. Because it seems as though an innocent person has had to take the blame for the murder of the livestock dealer Kienbaum.
Wilhelm Raabe (1831-1910) challenges his reader in two different ways in „Stopfkuchen“. Firstly he presents a highly complex mixture of different levels of time and place. The reader has to find his or her own way through the story and understand what happened when. While Eduard is on his ship home, he jumps back and forth between events of the early 19th century and new impressions from his hometown. In addition, he recapitulates the events from the last evening of his visit – when Schaumann told him the true murderer of Kienbaum. But all of these parts are woven into each other in a complex manner. Raabe’s elaborate narrative sucks the reader into a time maze and they have to navigate it themselves.
But while trying to put the events in the right order and finding one’s way through the murder mystery, the reader will notice that the novel has an additional layer. “Stopfkuchen” deals with the impact, a collective has on an individual. Andreas Quakatz’ life, for instance, was completely ruined by the false accusations of murdering Kienbaum. His farm and his family were shunned and his life became miserable.
It is the same with Stopfkuchen himself, who spent his entire childhood being bullied. This had a massive impact on his life. Even though Schaumann proves Quakatz’ innocence later on and rehabilitates him, Schaumann is not shown as a martyr in the book. Instead he wants to take revenge on the town after all the years of humiliation and prove them wrong. All the teasing has made him indifferent and bitter. Thus he has a much more complex motivation for solving the murder than one might expect. Slowly but surely the reader understands what kind of person Schaumann has become due to his difficult childhood. Raabe thus creates a profound profile of a tragic identity – an identity that only becomes apparent to the reader over time.
It isn’t easy to summarise the complexity of Raabe’s novel in a few words. Its fascination truly lies in the way Raabe tells his sea- and murder story. But sometimes, as they say, actions speak louder than words. And the fact that Manesse has published “Stopfkuchen“ in the series ”Bibliothek der Weltliteratur” in 1948 and then again in 2010, to me, is quite explicit.