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In the heart of Old Havana

*Dedicated to the German journalist and author
  Henky Hentschel
Not like others
Eulogy for the German writer, journalist and nonconformist Henky Hentschel
The man wrote as he thought: “Why shouldn’t I have a little house (…) and live in it with a woman, a child and also a dog; have a car, some insurance policies (…) and die some day stuffed with sedatives like other sons-of-bitches? Why not?”

This was what Carl thought about life. He is the protagonist in Die Häutung (The Change), a great novel by Henky Hentschel. Those who knew the German author realized that Carl was Hentschel’s alter ego and that the novel was really his autobiography, a summary of his life that was so fascinating and shocking that it was the favorite book of many, while it disgusted others so much that they couldn’t finish reading it. A work like his life: intense and lived to the full. Many times, he was perfectly shameless. Long before the publication of Feuchtgebiete (Wetlands), Hentschel immersed himself in various kinds of human liquids; he was narcissistic, but often with a warm heart for human beings. And for dogs!

began to concern himself with others in 1970, when, at the age of 30, he founded Release Heidelberg, the first center in Germany that helped drug addicts. Hentschel worked for the radio, made films, was a journalist and wrote articles for all of the famous media in Germany.

Later, he left Germany for the first time and went to Elba, where he lived for 13 years as a hermit on an ecological farm; even so, he tried to have an “almost normal” existence. He described this unusual period of his life in the book Die Hunde im Schatten des Mandelbaums (The Dogs in the Shade of the Almond Tree).

But how did he combine the rigorous revelation of his life to everyone in Häutung, on the one hand, with his affectionate, sentimental feelings for and observations of dogs in the book he wrote on Elba, on the other? Or, to bring out the contradictions even more, with his magnificent books for children Jajas Klau and Die Charlies haben die Märchen geklaut (The Charlies Stole the Stories, in which the bad people stole all of the letters from the children’s books at night? Was there a Dr. Jekyll – Mr. Hyde dichotomy in his soul?

Perhaps the answer is simpler, in spite of all the defeatism (he always felt somewhat happy when he clashed with a wall in his life). His yearning for romanticism led him to write as many books of stories as “hard core” ones, with the same conviction.

This aspiration for romanticism also characterizes Carl, who is enthusiastic about a Caribbean prostitute in Paris and, after having sex, asks if he can stay with her for a while. Carl also asks if there are other women like her in her country. “All of them are like me,” she lies. And the two go off, Carl in the novel and Hentschel in real life, to live an odyssey in the Caribbean. And then the painful change began, because Hentschel lost one layer of skin after another.

The winds of the Gulf of Mexico took him first to Guadeloupe, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Guatemala and then, gently, to Cuba — where, at last, he found the woman for whom he’d been searching so long. The two had a daughter whom they named Naomi, which may be more proof of his yearning for romanticism. In that period, in the mid- or late ’90s, Hentschel put down permanent roots. Perhaps, as the only German in Cuba, he truly lived among Cubans, and he described his life in brilliant articles, books and texts.

He had his office, home and observation post in the Farnés Castle and the Bodeguita del Medio, in Old Havana, where Fidel Castro and Che Guevara celebrated the triumph of the Revolution in 1959. Many of his stories had their origins there, but so did the worsening of his health due to rum, the “high wine” of the Caribbean. After some years, he couldn’t continue to work in Cuba and had to go back to Germany, where he nearly died and had to be hospitalized. Some good friends from Munich took him out of the hospital and helped him to recover. He returned to Cuba in 2008. That was what he wanted; he knew that his story would end there.

In the next-to-the-last week of his life, Henky Hentschel found himself in strange circumstances, as did his alter ego at the end of Häutung — this time, not in traveling to another Caribbean island but rather in going somewhere “to look for new problems there.” Henky Hentschel died at the age of 72.

SVEN CREUTZMANN, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Feuilleton, 5. Sept. 2012

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