The unlikely Scheherezade of this book is Mrs Brücker, a blind old lady in a nursing home. Once she ran a food stall in Hamburg where the narrator used to get a curried sausage unlike any other. Connoisseurs tell him that curried sausage was invented in Berlin in the fifties, but he knows better – Mrs Brücker invented it in the forties. So he seeks her out to get the full story.
‘It’s a long story,’ she replied. ‘You’ll need to have some time to spare.’
‘Maybe when you come again,’ she said, ‘you can bring along a slice of cake.’
Over seven visits (massive, sweet wedges: Prince Regent, Sacher, mandarin creams, cheese cake with whipped cream) she tells a winding story that starts with her picking up a young seaman who’s been called up to an anti-tank regiment. Instead of setting off in the cold next morning he stays with Lena Brücker in her warm bed. Not that young Bremer has really much to do with the invention of curried sausage, but Lena won’t be hurried. It’s a story of survival in the last days of the war, as the Allied troops are poised to move in, and everyone is getting by the best they can, bartering, filching, inventing recipes that make potatoes taste like crab soup or bulking up bread with sawdust. Sounds grim? It isn’t. Lena is a doughty heroine. Bremer is in good hands with her, in more ways than one, and so are we.
It’s a wise and clever fable about the mundane detail of great historical moments, and the everyday good in human beings.