Writers are often asked which books that they read in childhood were most beloved, or most influential, or …
Well how about the books that were embarrassingly wrong.
There was a bookstore in Novi Sad, the city in which I was born – a place that smelled of books, of yellowing paper, of aging book binding glue, and of silk paper bookends; a place with a hint of ancientness and mystery where people spoke in low voices, as though they were in a library or a temple.
It was here that I picked up my first Karl May novel about Winnetou, the Apache chief, when I was seven or eight years old. I fell into that novel, and then all the rest, drowned in them, happily. I LOVED Winnetou and the Apaches.
I loved it all, the set-up, the context, the milieu, and the characters. My father bestowed upon me the nickname of Ntsho-chi, Winnetou’s sister. Other girls, other generations, might have grown up with a Disney Princess called Pocahontas who sang about the colors of the wind, but when I was growing up Ntsho-chi was the Indian Princess who was the lodestar.
They made me cry
Everything in those books was a wonder. It was one of the first books to totally immerse me, to hold me, to make me cry.
It took me YEARS to unlearn everything I thought I knew about the Apache, from reading this book.
Not least was the ‘fact’ that everything good and advanced and “civilized” came to the noble savages through the agency of a white Ubermensch, and specifically a German one.
Actually, two German ones, one was the old and dying philosopher-type.
The other one was Winnetou’s German blood brother who had steely blue eyes and blond hair and went by the name of Old Shatterhand because of the way his handshake crushed people’s fingers into bone stew. The guy who could outride and outshoot and outswim and outthink anybody at all, Superman in fringed buckskin, and yet humble and full of humor and faith…the ultimate, in fact, of what I later learned to know as a Mary Sue character. A beloved incarnation of May himself who (as far as I know) never actually met a single Indian.
Even back when I read those books for that first magical time, after I carted them home from that magical bookstore, there were things in it that bothered both the mystical and the pragmatic in me.
I could buy it all – everything – all the bits of window dressing, every tchotchke, every eagle feather on every warbonnet that everyone, of course, wore – ALL of it. But there was one thing that made me grind my teeth, even back then.
Where the “noble savage”, the heathen Indian, the man who ran around under God’s own sky and in His trees but called Him the Manitou instead of Jehovah and didn’t require anyone to die for his salvation, suddenly heard the sound of a church bell in a (you guessed it) German settlement of pious Christians, and for some reason all of it went away and nothing would do but Mary and Jesus from then on – the Christian faith, the Holy Holy Holy Christian faith, the thing that obviously trumped the ignorance and the innocence of the savage heathen who in his last hours found his salvation (and possibly found himself, bewildered and with an odd sense of being cheated, trying to figure out St Peter and the angels of the heavenly choir while looking for the Happy Hunting Grounds.
I have nothing against faith. Nothing at all. A sincerely held faith is a beautiful thing.
But this was not that. It was possibly one man’s sincere faith, all right – but it was being stuffed into a character where it did not belong at all and where it could only mar and not enhance.
And the writer, the character’s creator, the one who had MADE the great and glorious Winnetou who ruled a number of my childhood dreams, could not see that he was ruining his creation for the sake of that faith. It stopped being a story. It began to be preaching and indoctrination.
And in the meantime, still remembering with a melancholy sense of loss the sights and smells of that old bookstore and the dreams that dwelled within, I am stuck out here in the cold, unlearning the untruths behind the fairy tale of the Old West as told by a German dreamer who may well have sincerely and genuinely believed that – in one way or another – it was his destiny to raise the red man out of the Garden of Eden and straight into Heaven itself.
I will choose to remember the joy it gave me. I will choose to remember the frisson of delight that ran down my child-sized spine when my father called me lovingly by a fictional Apache princess’s name.
The rest… I will learn from the people who can actually and regretfully close the book on the dream… and tell me about what REALLY happened.
Winnetou: The German Apache
In Germany, Karl May’s books and the characters that drive them have become part of the fabric of the culture.
Just like in the U.S., many Germans grew up playing cowboys and Indians, but because of Karl May’s stories, they all wanted to be the Native American instead of the cowboy. The Winnetou films have become legendary in Europe. Over the years, they have been shown numerous times on European television.
Read the article HERE