Review: All For Nothing – Walter Kempowski

all for nothingIn All For Nothing we travel to the German province of East Prussia in the closing days of the Second World War. To understand the context in which this book is set, we need to understand a little history. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 created East Prussia as a German Enclave surrounded by Poland to the east, west and south and by the Baltic Sea to the north.   With the advance of Nazi Germany into Poland, the Polish land between East Prussia and Germany was taken by the German Army and East Prussia was reunited with the Greater Germanic Reich (see Wikipedia). East Prussia was not very affected by the War once the Reich was established but as the Russians advanced, the situation changed with great rapidity. The Russians swept into the west of East Prussia, once more cutting the province off from Germany. The German government was slow to react but in the winter of 1944/45, the population realised that they needed to head west or be massacred by the invading Russians.

Walter Kempowski has created a powerfully affecting novel about the impact of the times on the aristocratic von Globig family, who live in a huge house called the The Georgenhof.   The first half of the book provides a fascinating picture of life in rural East Prussia. The family consists of the remote and self-indulgent Katharina whose husband Eberhard is a Wehrmacht officer stationed in Italy. The household is largely run by “Auntie”, an elderly relative who presides over two Ukrainian maids and a Polish handy-man. Twelve-year-old Peter has the run of the large house and grounds and is tutored by retired teacher Dr Wagner who comes out every day to provide tuition in science, maths and the classics.

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Review: Look Who’s Back – Timur Vermes

look who's backSo, it’s today’s Germany, and Adolf Hitler finds himself waking up early one afternoon on a patch of undeveloped land.

It was relatively quiet; I could not see any enemy aircraft flying overhead, or hear the thunder of artillery fire, there seemed to be no shelling nearby or explosions, no air-raid sirens.  It also struck me that there was no Reich Chancellery and no Führerbunker. 

In full dress-uniform, but reeking of petrol, Adolf Hitler gets up and makes his way across the road to a newspaper kiosk.  He glances at the dates on the newspapers and when he sees the year 2011 he collapses to the ground.

So begins Timur Vermes book, Look Who’s Back, the first German novel to look at Adolf Hitler from a humorous perspective.  And I have to say, it has been very well-received (if rather uneasily) and looks like it’s going to be turned into a film later this year despite the controversial subject matter.

On waking from his years of oblivion, Hitler wander across to a newspaper stall and begins to acquaint himself with today’s Germany.  It is not a comfortable process and Hitler rapidly comes to the conclusion that the nation is as much in need of a Führer as before.  But with no money in his pockets and an utterly changed landscape, the thought comes to him:

 I needed a livelihood, however modest or basic. I needed somewhere to stay and a little money until I had a clearer perspective. Perhaps I needed to find a job, temporarily at least, until I knew whether and how I might be able to seize the reins of government.  

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Review: Tales from the Underworld – Hans Fallada

tales from the underworldIn recent years their has been a resurgence of interest in the mid-20th century German writer Hans Fallada. His novel Alone in Berlin was an unexpected success when Penguin published a new translation in 2010.  Around the same time Melville House published the novel Little Man What Now and then Penguin followed with A Small Circus in 2012.  Now we have a new collection of short stories in Tales from the Underworld.

Fallada is known for his stories about ordinary people in pre-WW2 Germany.  He deals with “the little people” and their concerns about jobs, money and housing.  In a typical Fallade story we conventional marriages and a way of life long gone where the woman works in the fields or busies herself around the house while the husband goes off to a dull job in a shop or office and returns to become a little tyrant in his own home.

The book opens with The Wedding Ring, a story set in a rural, peasant society where a group of women are digging potatoes in a field, supervised by an indolent male foreman.  A newly-married woman, Martha Utesch gets home at night to find that she has lost her wedding ring during the day’s labours. The foreman of the work gang has of course seen the ring and pocketed it, with no intention returning it to its owner.  Within a few pages we see the foreman’s attempt to make some money for himself resulting in horrific consequences.  This is a classic short story, compact, vividly told, with a powerful yet ironic conclusion.  It could have been written by any of the 19th century masters of the short story and its setting in 1920s Germany only goes to show that outside the cities, rural Europe was much the same wherever you were living.

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Review: Anatomy of a Night – Anna Kim

kim Anna Kim was born in South Korea but was brought up in Germany where her father was appointed a Professor of Fine Arts.  She writes in German and her book Anatomy of a Night is one of the first four books to be published by new Berlin-based publisher Frisch and Co who specialise in publishing contemporary books in English translation.  The publisher’s website says that Anna Kim, “is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Austrian State Fellowship for Literature, the Elias Canetti Fellowship, the Robert Musil Fellowship, and the 2009 Austrian Prize for Literature, among others”.

This novel deals with a difficult subject; an epidemic of suicides among the Innuit community in Greenland.  Apparently Innuit suicide is an ongoing problem and a quick search on the Internet brought up some in-depth studies by Canadian academics about the possible reasons for it such as

– Lack of coping skills when relationships break-up
– Lack of access to mental health treatment;
– Loss of control over land and living conditions;
– Socio-economic factors such as poor housing and employment opportunities.

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Review: The Winter of the Lions- Jan Costin Wagner

winter of lionsThe Winter of the Lions comes into the unusual category of a Scandinavian crime novel written by a German. The writer, Jan Costin Wagner has the unusual distinction of being selected by the Goethe Institute as one of their “hand-picked Germans“, presumably because his books have been translated into quite a number of languages and he has won prizes for his fiction around the world.

In an interview, Wagner said, “In my novels I aim to encapsulate a moment of comprehension – through leaving things out. I believe that writing fiction can get so close to reality and reveal the feelings that are common to all”.  He has been closely linked to Finland for many years (his wife is Finnish) and although his books have all the characteristics of “Scandi-crime”, there is something looser and less precisely defined about them than most novels in the genre, leaving questions unanswered and loose ends untied.

The Winter of the Lions was translated by the highly-regarded Anthea Bell which suggests that the publishers think it is a cut-above the run-of-the-mill crime novels.

Like most crime novels, the book has a police detective as the main character, this time a Kimmo Joentaa, who following the death of his wife returns each night to a snow-bound, lonely house to sit in silence reflecting on the past. An unexpected visitor arrives on his doorstep on Christmas Eve, a young, enigmatic woman who, earlier in the day at the police-station, has claimed to be a victim of rape.  The lonely Joentaa allows her into his house and after a short conversation, “a great cry enters” Joentaa’s brain as she takes him in her arms.

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Review: The Death of the Adversary – Hans Keilson

death of the adversaryHans Keilson died in 2011 at the age of 101.  A German Jew, Keilson and his non-Jewish wife fled to the Netherlands in 1936 to avoid Nazi persecution.  The couple separated during the war while Keilson went into hiding, undertaking work among the Jewish children separated from their parents.  He reunited with his wife after the war and discovered that both his parents had been deported to Auschwitz where they had died.  In order to practice medicine in the Netherlands, Keilson had to re-qualify as a physician and later trained as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.

While he was in hiding during the war, Keilson began work on his most significant novel Death of the Adversary in which he writes about the experience of being gradually cast out from a society which had previously been his home.  The English edition of the book has been in and out of print since 1962 but was republished by Vintage Books in 2011.

The book is written in the first person.  We join the un-named narrator living in his parent’s home (how we reviewers hate not knowing the name of the main character!).  In this case we are not even told which country the novel is located in and Keilson also deliberately anonymises the name of the dictator who slowly comes to power, giving him the title, “B” (he is of course based on Adolf Hitler).  The narrator’s father runs a photographic studio and is given to a pessimistic frame of mind which his wife finds too bleak, urging him not to voice his fears in front of their young son.

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Review: The Beggar King – Oliver Pötzsch

beggar kingAmazonCrossing is Amazon’s new venture into translating world literature into English.  An interview with Jeff Belle, the head of Amazon Crossing suggests that this is a genuine attempt to rectify the imbalance in translations (far more books are translated from English than into English).   No doubt there are also strong commercial motives for setting up AmazonCrossing, but anything which brings more translations into the English language is to be welcomed.

The first major success of AmazonCrossing was Oliver Pötzsch’s Hangman’s Daughter and they have followed this with a new book in the same series, The Beggar King which is available in either paperback or Kindle editions.

Oliver Pötzsch is a descendant of one of Bavaria’s leading dynasties of executioners and so has an interest in basing his series of historical novels on the hangman of Schongau, Jacob Kuisl, and his daughter Magdalena.  The book opens with a short prologue set in 1662 during the 30 years war which gives readers a glimpse of what rape and pillaging meant for a peaceful rural community.  It is worth noting the names of those involved for they will feature 25 years later in the book we are about to read.

Jakob Kuisil leaves his home-town of Schonburg to travel to the regional centre of Regensburg where his sister is reportedly dying of cancer. Back in Schonburg, Jakob’s daughter Magdalena has troubles of her own.  Her boyfriend Simon is a partially-qualified medical doctor and between the two of them they have uncovered corruption in the home of a city dignitary who has poisoned one of his maids who he made pregnant.  When Magdalena’s home is attacked and burnt in retribution for their discovery, the two lovers decide to follow Magdalena’s father to Regensburg to try to make a new life for themselves, not knowing that they are going to get embroiled in a much bigger scandal behind the heavily guarded walls of the city.

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