Erich Kästner’s Emil und die detective: Experiencing Public Transport

By Adam Borch

In an earlier post, I discussed how public transport (PT) plays a pivotal role in Erich Kästner’s popular children’s novel Emil und die detektive (1929). I argued that PT is used to illustrate the differences between the protagonist Emil Tischbein’s provincial hometown, Neustadt, and Berlin, but that, overall, the novel aims to reconcile those differences rather than exasperate them.

But there’s more to PT in this novel. Emil talks of PT as being part of the “concert” of Berlin (p.104); it creates the surrounding cityscape. There are also more lengthy intimate, detailed descriptions of his experiences of travelling on PT, experiences that are all significant in the novel.

Ten PT journeys are made in the novel. One is in Neustadt as Emil and his mother travel by the local horsecar from their home to the train station (p.37-38). Two others are Emil and his mother’s separate train journeys from Neustadt to Berlin (p.38-64, p.115-117). The rest all take place in Berlin and are marked out on the map below. The journeys are not all of equal relevance: some are described in detail while others happen in the space of a few words. Naturally, the latter help to illustrate the importance of PT in the novel, but the former are the most interesting.

Cornelius Löwe’s Pharus Map Berlin (1929). Source: Wikimedia Commons. Annotations: Adam Borch.

The first thing to notice is that these PT journeys do not amount to one single kind of experience, but offer spaces for different kinds of atmospheres and emotional responses. The central event of the novel – Emil’s journey on the Neustadt-Berlin train – is a good example of this.

In my previous post, I quoted the passage which introduces the train compartment where Emil sits on his way to the capital and it is worth repeating here:

The train this coach belongs to travels to Berlin. And probably in this compartment, in the next chapters, strange things will happen. A compartment like this is a curious contrivance. Perfect strangers sit here, and in a couple of hours they are as friendly as if they had known each other for years. Sometimes that’s very nice and pleasant. But sometimes it isn’t. For who knows what sort of people they all are? (p.13)

It presents train travel as a somewhat uncanny experience, simultaneously conjuring up feelings of familiarity and strangeness, with the final ominous question suggesting that inside this “curious contrivance” danger lurks. This encapsulates Emil’s actual experiences. There is a convivial, homely atmosphere when he enters the compartment, partly engendered by Emil’s politeness:

Emil took off his cap and said, “How do you do? Maybe there’s an empy seat here?” Of course there was an empty seat. And a fat woman who had taken off her left shoe because it pinched said to her neighbor, a man who puffed frightfully at every breadth, “Such polite children are rare nowadays.” […]

Suddenly he [Grundeis] laid the paper aside, took from his pocket a bar of chocolate, held it out to the boy, and said, “Well, young man, want some?” “Thank you very much,” answered Emil and took the chocolate. Then he hastily took off his cap, as an afterthought, made a little bow, and said, “Emil Tischbein is my name.” The passengers laughed. (pp.42-43)

This feeling is soon undercut, however: first by Grundeis’ strange, teasing descriptions of the capital – “In Berlin nowadays there are houses a hundred stories high, and they have to fasten the roofs to the sky so they won’t blow away.” (p.44) – which leads to an argument with the puffing man; and eventually by an uneasy, anxious feeling when the other passengers depart and Emil is left alone with Grundeis (p.45). It culminates with Emil being lulled into a nightmare: while dreaming that he’s being chased by the train he’s on, Grundeis robs him of the 140 marks he has been entrusted to bring to his grandmother (p.48-56).

Emil und die detective is a children’s novel, and a popular one to boot. But what does it try to tell its young readers about PT? Given the emphasis on the dangers that Emil is exposed to, one could be inclined to say that the novel is marked by a certain didacticism. Emil’s mother’s initial admonitions working as a general reminder of how to behave when travelling on PT:

“Don’t leave anything, dear! And don’t sit on the flowers. You can ask someone to lift your suitcase up into the baggage rack. But be polite about it and say, ‘Please.'”

“[…] Don’t forget to get out. You’ll be in Berlin at six seventeen. At the Friedrichstrasse Station. Don’t get off before that, at the Zoo station or some other.” […]

“And above all, don’t be as fresh with other people as you are with your mother. Don’t throw the paper on the floor when you eat your sandwiches – and – don’t lose your money!” (p.39-40)

However, the final chapter (entitled “Can Anything be Learned from It All?”) downplays such lessons:  the grandmother dismisses Emil and his mother’s conclusions – respectively, “never trust anybody” and “never to let children travel alone” (p.160) – by laughingly stating that the only thing to take away from the whole affair is to “[n]ever send cash, always send a money order” (p.160). Instead, I think, Kästner was more interested in conveying to his readers the exciting experiences that can take place once we are stuffed into a PT vehicle with total strangers.

This is not to say that Kästner wanted us to think that PT always causes the kind of drama described in the novel. Rather, I read it as suggesting that PT isn’t just fascinating because it illustrates the latest technological developments. It is also thrilling as a public space: fun and exciting because of the chance human encounters it facilitates.