Rural Bavaria at the outbreak of the Great War still moved to the rhythms of nature and the seasons. Village life revolved around the inn, the smithy, and the farms that surrounded both. Generations shared the same house, the young people paired up early and had little choice but to stick together, and families kept their feuds going for decades at a time.
Lena Christ starts Die Rumplhanni in just such a small setting, opening with a scene of the village smith and his apprentices, following with a scene at the local inn, and then introducing her protagonist Johanna Rumpl, a serving girl (though she is in her early 20s) at the farm next to the inn. The family that owns this farm has been feuding with the innkeepers since time out of mind, probably because someone tricked someone else into marriage but nobody really remembers for sure.
The title of the book comes from the old Bavarian practice of putting someone’s family name before their personal name, and then often shortening the personal name. Joseph Mayer would be Mayer Joseph, or, more likely, “der Mayer Sepp,” with “der” the masculine article in German and “Sepp” the customary nickname for Joseph. Christ tends to write these names as single words, hence “die Rumplhanni” with the feminine article “die” (pronounced “dee”) and “Hanni” as the short form of Johanna. It took me a little while to catch on to this bit of writing style, and also to recall that it was common to refer to people just by the word for their occupation, in male or female form as appropriate.
Names aren’t even the half of it though. Christ writes all of her dialogue in Bavarian dialect, and even for someone who lived there for ten years, it can be rough sledding. She also writes dialogue with a minimum of indications of who is speaking, so I had to go back and count fairly often to get a sense of who was saying what. Bavarian drops a lot of consonants compared with the standard written German that Christ uses for the rest of the text. Except for the times that it drops vowels instead. Here is a bit of dialog between Hanni and a traveling purchasing agent who buys farm products to take to regional markets.
H: Hast guat einkaaft z’ Öd?
PA: Net schlecht … beim Staudenschneider hab i um zwanzg Mark Sach kriagt, heunt
H: Ah! Daß der so viel hergebn sollt, dees Gnack
PA: Hat mirs ja d’ Halterin gebn
H: D’ Susann?
H: Hat denn die so viel Recht?
PA: Werds scho habn
And in standard German —
HA: Hast gut eingekauft in Öd?
PA: Net schlecht … beim Staudenschneider habe ich heute Sachen für zwanzi Mark gekriegt
H: Ah! Dasß der so viel hergeben sollte, der Gnack [although Gnack is a purely dialect word]
PA: Die Haushalterin hat mir es gegeben
H: Die Susanna?
H: Hat denn die so viel Recht
PA: Wird sie schon haben
Which roughly translates as —
H: Did you buy well in Öd [the village]
PA: Not bad … at Staudenschneider’s [a farmer’s] I bought twenty marks’ worth
H: Ah! That he would let so much go, the old mule
PA: The housekeeper sold it to me
H: Does she have the right to do that?
PA: I suppose she does
The thing is, the housekeeper probably didn’t have permission to sell so much, not least because Christ had recently explained how that particular part of the year was regarded by country people as particularly propitious, so that they would keep the produce for their own use. Hanni knows it, and the purchasing agent knows it too. The housekeeper is taking out some frustration or injustice on the family she works for. And thus do the village intrigues keep going. The dialect and Christ’s intimate, first-hand knowledge of the setting pull the reader deep into the rhythms and mindsets of the people living in the countryside. (There’s quite a contrast to the concerns of the Cosmic circle from Herrn Dames Aufzeichnungen.)
Hanni herself is up to her eyeballs in intrigue. She’s an orphan, though her grandmother survives and lives elsewhere in the village. She’s still single, and a servant, but she aspires to more. She’s also a bit of a flirt, much to the annoyance of the other young women in the village, who seem to have mostly shut her out of their circles years ago. She tries to get the son of the family she works for to take an interest. The novel opens just as the Great War is breaking out, and when the son enlists with the other young men from the village, she extracts a promise (or so she thinks) that he will marry her on his return. With the son away, the mother and grandmother tyrannize Hanni, and the father starts to think that she’s actually pretty attractive and who needs to know what goes on in the barn anyway? Hanni encourages this line of thought in hopes of getting a written agreement about a future marriage and an inheritance if the son does not return from the war.
Of course it all blows up, slightly more than halfway through the book, and Hanni leaves to seek her fortune in the big city of Munich (“and if that doesn’t pan out, Berlin, and if that doesn’t, then America!”), although not without embarrassing herself even further in the village with quick attempts to line up a substitute suitor.
On the way to Munich she confronts someone from her past, and on her first night there she gets robbed by someone she should be able to trust. Rather than help her, passing policemen arrest her when she won’t tell them her name. They are more interested in upholding the social order than in assisting a victim of crime. The same attitude shows up again later, when Hanni is working with a woman who sells fruits and vegetables from a cart. They can make more money selling in wealthy neighborhoods, but because they are the “wrong” sort, police will at the very least chase them out of such neighborhoods if they find them there.
The job as a fruit and vegetable seller is only part of what she does; Hanni is more the housekeeper for the seller’s family. She looks after the children, tends the husband who is deathly ill, and when the seller is in the clink for a couple of days again for one thing or another, Hanni takes on the sales duties as well. It’s a look into working-class Munich, when that meant cramped quarters, long hours, and probably an early death. They live in the Au, a district down by the river that is still a little louche but mostly gentrified (like the Schlachthofviertel in München Blues).
Hanni’s fortunes turn when she’s in jail for one of her three days’ sentence for disrespecting police authority: she hears that a restaurant is looking for a new kitchen helper. She turns up (apparently leaving the fruit and vegetable seller without a thought; Christ does not give readers a farewell scene) and fits in immediately. The owners like her work ethic and knack for organization; they also seem to be better people than the farmer family she worked for. Of course Hanni, like most people of her time, believes that what she really needs to do is find a husband and a more permanent role in life. She sets her sights on the restaurant owners’ only son, while the young butcher has set his one-eyed sights on Hanni. Will she blow it again? She’s an ambitious woman in a world that does not see that as positive at all, and sometimes she’s too clever by half.
Die Rumplhanni shows a world in the process of passing, but one whose echoes are still audible in both the Bavarian countryside and in Munich. The book was published while the war was still going. Christ herself had six children from her first, unhappy marriage. Her future second husband encouraged her to write in an autobiographical vein. That marriage ended near the end of the war, and Christ died in 1920, not yet 40 years of age. Rumplhanni brings a slice of the past back to life, a specifically Bavarian past, but one with universal tendencies.