9. Pilgrimage, Transformation and Poetical Anthropology. Hubert Fichte's Journeys into the Afro-American Religions in Brazil

By Stuhlmann, Andreas | Spatial Practices, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

9. Pilgrimage, Transformation and Poetical Anthropology. Hubert Fichte's Journeys into the Afro-American Religions in Brazil


Stuhlmann, Andreas, Spatial Practices


Our story begins in the summer of 1968. At such an iconic moment, what is a successful young German writer, author of the first German language beat-novel (and a bestseller to boot) - to do? The book in question, Die Palette, (The Palette) is his second novel: it sold 23,000 copies immediately, remained on the bestseller list for six months, made him a star for a short while and brought him 20,000 Marks he hadn't expected. So the precise question is: how to spend what amounts to a small fortune? The down-payment on an apartment? A Picasso drawing? Or burn it all? This is the dilemma confronting the writer Jäcki in Hubert Fichte' s novel Explosion, with its subtitle, a "novel of anthropology". Should the windfall be spent on clothes? Stuff for the kitchen? Art books? Oysters? Presents for his friends, for Tante Hilde and Mum? Well, that's a given. A journey, maybe? A journey "we will never again be able to afford. Brazil. Three months in Brazil. An eternity in Brazil. With Touropa. . . . Rio de Janeiro, new for Germany, it said in the Touropa catalogue."1

So Jäcki and his partner, Irma, a photographer, leave behind what are turbulent political events in the old world in the aftermath of the so-called Prague Spring. The holiday in a five star hotel on Rio's Copacabana, with organized trips to Brasilia and Bahia, is partly a hippie-style break-away, planned as an escape from the unrelenting social and political turbulence at home. Yet little do they know it is actually going to be the beginning of a pilgrimage that will last fifteen years, fifteen years of travelling and writing, and researching. (Cf. Linckl995)

In the story of Jäcki and Irma, Hubert Fichte (1935-1986) rewrote events of his life and the life of his partner, the photographer, Leonore Mau (*1916), and the novel Explosion which he completed only weeks before his death of lymph gland cancer, was only posthumously published seven years later, in 1993. It reconstructs the three journeys to Brazil they took together - in 1968, 1971, and in 1981. But the characters Jäcki and Irma are more than just alter egos or simply masked autobiographical references. "My books are no masquerades. They describe experiments: living a life so as to find a form of expression for it,'" Fichte said in an interview with the German weekly newspaper, Die Zeit, in 1972. Irma and Jäcki become doubles in Antonin Artaud's style of Fichte and Mau in this search for expression and they are participants in an experiment, which was to become Fichte's so-called "roman fleuve" Die Geschichte der Empfindlichkeit (History of Sensitivity). (Cf. Röscher 2002)

From the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, Fichte pursued this enormous 19-volume project, in itself actually a large-scale experiment with the contingencies of novel form. It combines three narrative strands to achieve a style of "thick description" (cf. Geertz 1973): (a) the autobiography of Jäcki with observations and reflections on art, literature, architecture and photography, on various incidents and groupings around the German "Gruppe 47", extending as far as New York's Pop Art scene; (b) research into milieus of urban subculture, from Hamburg's infamous red-light district along the Reeperbahn to Rio and Dakar, as part of travelogues of extensive journeys on four continents. His research into the diversity of Afro-American traditions, and especially into religious rituals in Africa, North and South America, the Caribbean and Europe, forms the third strand (c).

He published extensively on his pilgrimages to the holy shrines at Bahia and the Casa das Minas in Säo Luiz Maranhäo in Brazil, on the Dugu-rituals in Belize and the cult of the deity Xango in Haiti and Trinidad.4 On numerous occasions, his texts were accompanied by Mau's photos.5 Three similarly interwoven literary styles correspond to these three strands: the fictional framework to the novel, a politically-engaged journalistic approach and an ethnographical one.

An integral part of his personal literary technique and an ingredient of "thick description" are interviews. …

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