I read Mephisto, by Klaus Mann, and for the most part liked it. It was clever and funny without ever mocking the gravity, danger, and oppression of Nazi Germany — Mann is able to satirize the Nazi elite in a humourous manner while continuously reminding the reader that comedic frivolity, excess, hypocrisy, and ignorance are part of the horrific violence of the regime. I am also personally interested in 1920 and 1930s European art movements and politics, and the novel covers theatre (avant-garde and leftist) extensively, as well as influences from Russia and France. So that was great for me.
However, I didn’t know how to deal with the character of Juliette/Princess Tebab, an African-German dancer. She is, one the one hand, described as beautiful and resourceful, as well as an extremely talented dancer. When the protagonist, actor and theatre director Hendrik Höfgen, asks her to leave Germany, she contemplates the racism of this request and her own German heritage, as well as why this heritage should be ignored because it is not ‘purely’ German, something which feels radical even today when being non-white effectively means ‘You are Other. You do not truly belong Here. Where are you really from?’
Less favourable in Juliette’s character is the stereotyping and fetishism. She’s beautiful, but constantly referred to as ‘The Black Venus’ — you cannot forget her race. More than this is the overt racism: descriptions of her thick, rough, dark skin, for instance, as well as her cruelty. In the novel she treats Hendrik meanly, and they form an erotic, sado-masochistic relationship where she beats and humiliates him to his delight.
So I don’t know what to think. Partially, I loved her character. She was one of the only characters to stand up to Höfgen, and she was depicted as both intelligent and, in her own way, extremely sensitive. Höfgen is the central hypocrite of the book, starting out in a Communist theatre group then manipulating his way into Nazi high society and allaying his hardly-there guilt by repeating to himself that if he didn’t suck up to the men and women giving orders for murder, he could be killed himself. And Juliette is the only one to stand up to him, getting what she wants from him through exploitation and manipulations. She is one of two characters who, by the end, actively express rage at Höfgen; the other is a minor actor who supported the Nazi party. So in that regard, she comes out on top as one of the most lucid and active characters in the book.
Still, the characterisation of a Black woman who is a rough, violent nightclub dancer/prostitute and engages in scandalous sexual behaviour where (and I’m not saying these are my politics but dominant ideals) she takes on a masculine role with a feminised Nazi hypocrite, is not exactly my definition of progressive. And though by the end I felt that she was my favourite (and only really likeable) character, while reading it was often painful to see the racist descriptions that Mann ascribes to her. So I don’t necessarily know how I feel about the novel, and I think that Mann probably had relatively good intentions in creating her character. I still feel uncomfortable.