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2018 Travel: Books Set in Germany

Germany is the third country which I have been lucky enough to visit so far this year.  My boyfriend and I travelled to beautiful Munich at the end of February.  Here are seven books set in Germany which I have loved, and would highly recommend.
1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005) 893136
HERE IS A SMALL FACT:  YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.  1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.  Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with her foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.  SOME MORE IMPORTANT INFORMATION:  THIS NOVEL IS NARRATED BY DEATH.  It’s a small story, about: a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery.  ANOTHER THING YOU SHOULD KNOW: DEATH WILL VISIT THE BOOK THIEF THREE TIMES.
2. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (1995)
Hailed for its coiled eroticism and the moral claims it makes upon the reader, this mesmerizing novel is a story of love and secrets, horror and compassion, unfolding against the haunted landscape of postwar Germany.  When he falls ill on his way home from school, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover—then she inexplicably disappears. When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student, and she is on trial for a hideous crime. As he watches her refuse to defend her innocence, Michael gradually realizes that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.
494653. Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum (2004)
For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmfuhrer of Buchenwald.  Driven by the guilt of her heritage, Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the dramatic and heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life.  Combining a passionate, doomed love story, a vivid evocation of life during the war, and a poignant mother/daughter drama, Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.
4. Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (2008)
A house on the forested bank of a Brandenburg lake outside Berlin (once belonging to Erpenbeck’s grandparents) is the focus of this compact, beautiful novel. Encompassing over one hundred years of German history, from the nineteenth century to the Weimar Republic, from World War II to the Socialist German Democratic Republic, and finally reunification and its aftermath, Visitation offers the life stories of twelve individuals who seek to make their home in this one magical little house. The novel breaks into the everyday life of the house and shimmers through it, while relating the passions and fates of its inhabitants. Elegant and poetic, Visitation forms a literary mosaic of the last century, tearing open wounds and offering moments of reconciliation, with its drama and its exquisite evocation of a landscape no political upheaval can truly change.
5. A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City by Anonymous (1953) 12238919
For eight weeks in 1945, as Berlin fell to the Russian army, a young woman kept a daily record of life in her apartment building and among its residents. The anonymous author depicts her fellow Berliners in all their humanity, as well as their cravenness, corrupted first by hunger and then by the Russians. A Woman in Berlin tells of the complex relationship between civilians and an occupying army and the shameful indignities to which women in a conquered city are always subject–the mass rape suffered by all, regardless of age or infirmity.
6. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald (1995)
‘From the Booker Prize-winning author of Offshore comes this unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his fiancee Sophie, newly introduced by Candia McWilliam.The year is 1794 and Fritz, passionate, idealistic and brilliant, is seeking his father’s permission to announce his engagement to his heart’s desire: twelve-year-old Sophie. His astounded family and friends are amused and disturbed by his betrothal. What can he be thinking?Tracing the dramatic early years of the young German who was to become the great romantic poet and philosopher Novalis, The Blue Flower is a masterpiece of invention, evoking the past with a reality that we can almost feel.’
95455457. The End: Germany 1944-1945 by Ian Kershaw (2011)
Ian Kershaw’s The End is a gripping, revelatory account of the final months of the Nazi war machine, from the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 to the German surrender in May 1945.  In almost every major war there comes a point where defeat looms for one side and its rulers cut a deal with the victors, if only in an attempt to save their own skins. In Hitler’s Germany, nothing of this kind happened: in the end the regime had to be stamped out town by town with an almost unprecedented level of brutality.  Just what made Germany keep on fighting? Why did its rulers not cut a deal to save their own skins?  And why did ordinary people continue to obey the Fuhrer’s suicidal orders, with countless Germans executing their own countrymen for desertion or defeatism?

 

Have you read any of these?  Have any made their way onto your to-read list?

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Snapshots: Munich and Salzburg (February-March 2018)

Snapshots from another fantastic holiday. Featuring trips to Bayern Munich, the Olympic Park in Munich, and Hohensalzburg Castle in Salzburg, alongside beautiful scenery.

Music:
‘Suffragette Suffragette’ by Everything Everything | ‘Better Open the Door’ by Motion City Soundtrack

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‘Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August’ by Oliver Hilmes ****

9781847924346I love books with concepts such as Oliver Hilmes’ Berlin 1936, where an entire event – in this case, the 1936 Olympic Games, held in Berlin – is charted using not just official figures and statistics, but with the inclusion of ordinary people who witnessed part of it. Hilmes has put this particular book together using a diverse range of diaries and letters, along with historical information about the weather on each given day, and surprising figures, such as the amount of food in kilograms eaten within the Olympic Park.

The spectators included in Hilmes’ account are as diverse as the Chair of the International Olympic Committee, composer Richard Strauss’ wife Pauline, the American author Tom Wolfe, and Austria’s Ambassador to Germany. There are also extracts from the diaries of high-ranking Nazi officers, and Jewish people who were already beginning to see what an enormous threat Hitler was to their freedom. One of the real strengths in Berlin 1936 is the way in which Hilmes demonstrates how ordinary lives play out against the pomp and circumstance of the Olympic spectacle, which is just as fraught with social problems as the city of Berlin itself.

Berlin 1936 is a fascinating piece of social history, with a direct focus that never fades from Hilmes’ commentary. The narrative which the author has created works very well, and he seems to effortlessly tie the numerous different occurrences and opinions together. The structure too, which is given on a chronological day-to-day basis, is splendid. Berlin 1936 is engaging and well researched, and builds wonderfully as it goes on.

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‘Mrs Sartoris’ by Elke Schmitter ****

Elke Schmitter’s Mrs Sartoris has been described as ‘an explosive first novel – Madame Bovary in modern Germany – about a wife and mother whose failed love affairs have driven her to the edge of sanity and to a startling attempt at vindication.’  It has been translated from its original German by Carol Brown Janeway, and was first published in English in 2002.

Mrs Sartoris opens in rather an intriguing manner: ‘The street was empty.  It was drizzling, as it often did in this region, and twilight was giving way to darkness – so you can’t say that the visibility was good.  Perhaps that’s why I was so late in spotting him, but it was also probably because I was deep in thought.  I’m often deep in thought.  Not that anything comes of it.’ 9780571219193

Our protagonist is Margarethe Sartoris, transcribed in the English version as Margaret.  After she is jilted by a rich boyfriend, with whom she is much in love, at the age of eighteen, she is sent to a sanitorium.  Reflecting on her experiences, she says: ‘A nervous breakdown didn’t belong in our circle.  Such a thing required a cause, and the cause arbitrarily existed.’  When she is released, she ‘throws herself into a comfortable and stifling marriage to Ernst, a war veteran with a penchant for routine and order who still lives with his mother in a small German village.’

Margaret, who has a wealth of psychological scars attained in her past, quickly becomes dissatisfied in her choice, and ‘neither Ernst’s adoration not the birth of a daughter can reawaken her frozen emotions.’  Of her decision to marry Ernst, she writes: ‘From that moment on, it was a form of ice-cold delirium.  When I awoke next morning, I allowed myself an instant’s reflection – but my mind was made up.  I had enormous willpower, and I had no desire to stop myself.  I was grateful for the rage that had swallowed everything up: the exhaustion of the last six months, the sense of indifference and alienation and the feeling of not being at home in the world.  I thought of all that and was terrified.’

When she first studies her daughter, Daniela, whilst in the hospital’s maternity ward, Margaret muses: ‘She had inherited nothing from either of us…  Ernst’s hair was mouse brown, and my own mop of curls was dark blond… and this daughter of mine, my first and last, had red-gold down on her head and was so delicate she could disappear at any moment, whereas the rest of us were tall and quite well built.’  She is both loving towards, and scared of, her daughter, and becomes indifferent towards Ernst, a catalyst which pushes her in the direction of affairs with a series of troubled males.

Mrs Sartoris is structured in a series of rather short sections, which contain both threads of Margaret’s present story, and memories and reflections of scenarios in her past.  Schmitter’s portrayal of Margaret is a searching one, and there is a strength in both her writing and her creation of a believable narrative voice.  Mrs Sartoris does become taut and tense as it progresses, and is engaging from the first.  Despite being rather a slight book, it is packed with a lot of depth and feeling, as well as much darkness.

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‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ by Yoko Tawada ****

Yoko Tawada is a Japanese author who, in her early twenties, moved to Germany in order to study and has been living there since. A rather prolific author, Tawada writes in both German and Japanese and her works are steadily becoming more and more known worldwide. As a Japanese woman living in Europe, the perspective she offers through her writing is truly unique and very fascinating, as it perfectly captures the feelings of expats without becoming overly dramatic.

33126922Memoirs of a Polar Bear is her most recent novel that’s translated from German to English by Susan Bernofsky, and thanks to the wonderful Lizzy I got the chance to read it as part of the German Literature Month, something I’m really grateful for (you can read Lizzy’s review over here). Coincidentally, the novel was awarded the very first Warwick prize for Women in Translation earlier this month, a prize which in my opinion was very well deserved.

Employing the technique of magical realism, the novel is divided into three parts, each one recounting the story of a polar bear, starting with the grandmother (whose name is unknown), moving on with the daughter (Tosca) and finishing up with the grandson (Knut). The first part, “The Grandmother: An Evolutionary Theory”, is narrated in first person by the polar bear herself as she relates her journey from Russia to Germany to Canada and back to Germany. While working at the circus, like all the polar bears of the novel do, she decides to start writing her autobiography, an attempt which renders her quite popular. Language and writing are two major themes which Tawada uses throughout this novel, as the first bear is constantly faced with linguistic barriers, something which might reflect Tawada’s own initial experience abroad. This dialogue of the polar bear with her editor conveys brilliantly this struggle with language:

“The language gets in my way.”

“The language?”

“Well, to be specific: German.”

[….] “I thought we had communicated quite clearly that you are to write in your own language, since we have a fantastic translator.”

“My own language? I don’t know which language that is. Probably one of the North Pole languages.”

“I see, a joke. Russian is the most magnificent literary language in the world.”

“Somehow I don’t seem to know Russian anymore.”

In the second part, “The Kiss of Death”, we are following Tosca, the daughter’s story. Instead of hearing the bear’s own voice like in the first part, however, here the narrator is Tosca’s human female partner in the circus. Thus, Tosca’s story is initially given through human eyes, but as the relationship between the two deepens further and further, their voices start intermingling and converging and in a way which only magical realism can justify, the woman hears Tosca’s voice in her mind and the words she eventually utters are not her own but the bear’s. Interestingly enough, this intermingling of voices (and identities, to an extent) happens after the woman decides to start writing Tosca’s biography, since, unlike her mother, Tosca is unable to write and communicate with the other humans. I found it particularly intriguing how the woman, who plays such a central role to this part and to Tosca’s life, remains unnamed throughout, just like Tosca’s bear mother in the previous part. IMG_0106

The woman’s obsession with communicating with Tosca ends up becoming a setback to her marriage, as her husband feels like the woman has rather lost touch with reality. This reminds me of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, where the protagonist’s obsession with not consuming meat or anything related to it also becomes detrimental to her marriage. Much like in the first part, language and communication become major issues, along with those of identity, femininity and maternality.

“Memories of the North Pole”, the third part, introduces us to Knut, Tosca’s son. Once again, Tawada beautifully plays with the narrative voices, as the narration here focuses on Knut and his perspective but is in third person. Later on it is revealed that it was Knut narrating his story all along, but he preferred using the third person even when referring to himself.

Like his mother and grandmother before him, Knut is working at the circus. Having never met his mother, he is being raised and taken care of by Matthias and Christian, who also work at the circus. Again, the issue of language ad communication is raised but I felt like the most prevailing theme here was that of family, relationships and familial bonds. Homosexuality is also brought up, since Matthias and Christian become Knut’s “parents” and the parallels to a homosexual couple bringing up a child are easily drawn.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear is a short but very rich book. Throughout the novel, there are many hints/metaphors for race (the whiteness of a polar bear’s fur contrasted with the brownness of a normal bear’s fur, which is much more commonly seen), immigration and different cultural backgrounds (the bears live among humans and they are of different species, so perhaps that insinuates different ethnicities?) and all those themes and issues raised could not be more relevant to today’s society.

I absolutely adored Tawada’s writing. It was beautiful and I wanted to savour each and every word. Despite its short length, this isn’t a novel to be devoured in a few hours, not only because of all the different themes it’s packed with but also because all the nuances of Tawada’s prose will be unfortunately missed. I definitely feel like I can never praise this book highly enough and my own words fail in conveying the magnificence of this novel. I will end this review with one of my favourite quotes:

“And there, in darkness, the grammars of many languages lost their color, they melted and combined, then froze solid again, they drifted in the ocean and joined the drifting floes of ice.”

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‘If This is a Woman’ by Sarah Helm *****

In If This is a Woman, Sarah Helm has written utterly phenomenal study. She tells of the atrocities of Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp during the Second World War, and the only one of its kind exclusively for women prisoners. It is the first book to write extensively about Ravensbruck, one of the final camps to be liberated by the Russians.

9780349120034Only ten percent of Ravensbruck’s prisoners were Jewish, contrary to a lot of other camps; the rest were arrested due to opposition to the Nazi Party, and were drawn from such groups as communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Resistance in various European countries. There were also others deemed ‘asocials’, who ranged from lesbians to Gypsies. Among the prisoners were ‘the cream of Europe’s women’, including various countesses, a former British golfing champion, and the niece of General de Gaulle.

Helm draws upon the published testimonies of Ravensbruck’s prisoners, as well as seeking out those who survived the brutal conditions, and studying records of the court case which followed, aiming as it did to punish those who were in charge. Her research has been carried out impeccably, particularly considering that the majority of the papers relating to prisoners and conditions were burnt before liberation. Helm has aimed to create ‘a biography of Ravensbruck beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, piecing the broken story back together again as best I could’. The death toll from the camp is unknown, but is estimated to be somewhere between 30,000 and 90,000.

Helm’s writing style is immensely readable, and her research meticulous. If This is a Woman is such a well paced account, and the author never shies away from demonstrating how harrowing the conditions were, and how horrific the injuries and deaths which many within Ravensbruck faced. In trying to tell the individual stories of as many women as she possibly could, both prisoners and those who guarded them, she has added an invaluable biography to the field of Holocaust and Second World War studies.

If This is a Woman won the Longman-History Today Prize, which was incredibly well deserved. One can only hope that further accolades follow. <i>If This is a Woman</i> is, without a doubt, one of my favourite historical studies in terms of its far-reaching material and the sensitivity which has been continually demonstrated, as well as one of my books of the year.

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Reading the World: ‘The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum’ by Heinrich Boll **

Heinrich Boll, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is an author whom I’d heard rather a lot about but had never read.  I decided to rectify this by picking up perhaps his most famous novel in English translation, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum.  The Sunday Telegraph deems it a ‘novel of compassion and irony’, and The Times writes of the way in which ‘Boll sustains a masterly and insidious tension to the end.  He is detached, angry and totally in control’.  It sounded wonderfully unsettling, particularly when one takes into account the fact that its subtitle is ‘or how violence develops and where it can lead’, and I was rather excited to get started with it.

9780749398989Katharina Blum, our twenty seven-year-old protagonist, is at the ‘centre of a big city scandal’ when, at a party, she ‘falls in love with a young radical on the run from the police.  Portrayed by the city’s leading newspaper as a whore, a communist and an atheist, she becomes the target of anonymous phone calls and sexual threats’.  This drives her to shoot the offending journalist, before giving herself up for arrest.  ‘Step by step, and with an affecting forensic identity, Katharina’s story is reconstructed for the reader, gradually disclosing an entire panorama of human relationship and motive.  The novel is a masterful comment on the law and the press, the labyrinth of social truth and the relentless collusion of fact and fiction’.

The structure works well, in that the whole has been split into very short numbered sections; it is intended to read as something akin to a police report.  I am fine with novels being written in the format of a report, provided that it is done well.  Here, though, I was a little put off by the way in which many of the sections are really rather dull, and have very few redeemable or memorable qualities to them.  Sadly, these lacklustre sections were far more frequent than ones which I found of interest.  The story tends to get bogged down with tiny details.  Whilst it is fascinating, and often scary, to see how the media can affect a life, the real impact here for me came when I related the events of Katharina’s story to the ‘fake news’ scandal which has been going on for longer than we would perhaps like to believe.  The development of the characters in The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum was rather slipshod; perhaps this is because we, the readers, learn about the protagonist only through the biased viewpoint of the police.  I certainly lost interest at times, and debated whether to even finish reading the piece.

Unfortunately, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum did next to nothing for me.  The detachment was so acute that I could feel no sympathy for Katharina, and felt merely like an isolated observer.  Its translator has done a good job in rendering it into English, and the phrasing reads well whilst being rather dated; however, I simply found the book too matter-of-fact, and not entirely well paced.  Widely regarded as a German classic, I wonder if I am missing something fundamental with regard to The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum.  I suppose it is fair to say that whilst I liked the general idea of the book, I had rather a few qualms with its execution, and can therefore rate it no higher than two mediocre stars.

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