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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
Dot and Anton
by Erich Kastner
Age Range: 9-11
Dot Pogge and Anton Gast are secret best friends, but their lives could not be more different. Dot is a tiny thing – given the nickname Pünktchen because she was so very tiny when she was born. She lives in a big apartment in Berlin with her father, a director of a walking stick factory, who is extremely busy making lots of money; her pretty mother, who spends her days idly driving round town, shopping, going to tea parties and fashion shows with scant regard for either her husband or her child; their corpulent maid Berta; Miss Andacht the governess who is tall, thin and a bit crazy and Piefke Dot’s little brown dachshund.
By contrast, Anton is from a poor family living on the fourth floor of an apartment block where he looks after his ailing mother who is recovering from a serious operation. Anton has to find a way to supplement their income to put food on the table while his mother is unable to work.
Dot is a feisty young heroine; she always asks lots of questions and loves play-acting which comes in handy when she dresses as a beggar to sell matches and shoelaces in the dead of night with Anton and Dot’s strange governess Miss Andacht on the Weidendammer Bridge. When the two friends become suspicious of Miss Andacht’s fiancé, who Dot calls ‘Robert the Devil’, they are determined to find out about his unsavoury plan.
Kästner always insisted that sad or worrying ideas must not be kept from young readers. He doesn’t hide the poverty that Anton lives in, the nature of his mother’s illness or the harshness of life on the streets of Berlin at night. It is clear that the class divide means nothing to Dot and Anton as their shared secret and strong friendship rises above it.
This fresh, new translation by Anthea Bell brings Dot and Anton, one of the lesser known Kästner works, to a new audience. Although written in 1931, there are many things in this novel that have a modern feel; interspersed with afterthoughts at the end of every chapter, Kästner offers witty asides and moral guidance, much of which is just as relevant today as it was then.
Kästner makes it clear that he doesn’t like Mrs Pogge in his homalie ‘About Duty’, (she is ‘unbearable’). The old-fashioned belief that a boy shouldn’t cook is probably hard for children to understand today, but in the 1930s when the roles of men and women were much more clearly defined, cooking was seen as very much the woman’s domain, so for the time, Kästner’s view is refreshingly modern.
Kästner comments on a whole range of subjects including: imagination, courage, curiosity, friendship, self-control, telling lies, respect and gratitude. He also discusses the socialist principle of poverty, changes in society and the status quo. In ‘About Family Happiness’ Kästner suggests that it ‘really should be read by grown-ups. So next time there is trouble at home, open the book at this page and give it to your parents to read’…
It was only two years after the publication of Dot and Anton that Kästner’s first novel for adults Fabian was going up in flames on a bonfire of books in the Opernplatz in Berlin.
Dot and Anton is a timeless classic that will be enjoyed by children for its witty adventure story but also by adults for the pearls of wisdom dotted throughout the book offering a remarkable insight into the voice of an author ahead of his time.