Sunday, 13 January 2008

How German Is It = Wie Deutsch Ist Es by Walter Abish

When should victims and their descents stop being victims and when do the crimes of our ancestors stop being our fault? This is territory of How German Is It = Wie Deutsch Ist Es by Walter Abish published in 1981 but set in the 70’s when the post war generation were having to come to terms with their futures and the pasts it was built on. Abish is an American but whose family had fled Europe during the Hitler years.

The central character is Ulrich a writer who is the son of a former high ranking German military officer executed for his role in the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. He and his brother a modernist architect are from the aristocratic elite who supported Hitler’s anti-communist stance as a political necessity. We first meet Ulrich having returned to the new post war town and discover that he had been caught up with a terrorist cell who were imprisoned based on his evidence so he and his wife are free. This has serious consequences as it clear that his wife who leaves him believes in the terrorist cause as may one of his girl friends. His brother, Helmuth is helping to build the new Germany and is in cahoots with the Mayor and has a chaotic sex life causing his marriage to fall about. This again ripples through the novel and helps to shape the climax of the story.

A servant who saved the family in the fall of Nazi Germany lives in the new town and serves in the best restaurant and is known and loved by the two brothers. But it’s clear in the web of relationships that build up that not all is as it seems. As the character’s relationships build up a picture of who Ulrich is and why he must react in the final count in the way he does, we also start to discover that the new town is built on the ruins of a concentration camp and a willingness to try and ignore the past. To the point that we begin to see that the terrorists may well be the moralists except they are as much a failure as the bright new town.

It is a political thriller and more as Abish is an experimentalist writer who uses German stereotypes and a central character, Ulrich, who is initially a cipher to builds up the story by switches in narrator, by the author questioning the action or intention of the character or situation etc. As the story unfolds the interaction with the other characters builds in to real psychological studies. The climax and its consequences for Ulrich seek to answer the question of the novel’s title.The novel is highly recommended and for all it being experimental is not a difficult read. It won the American book award(PEN/Faulkner) in 1981 and deserves a wider readership.

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