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Category Archive for 'Germany'

Thirty-one years have passed since author Cristina Garcia’s first trip to Germany, and she has just returned to Berlin for the first time since then. Because she is fascinated by some of the people she meets there, she creates a “Visitor” as a stand-in for herself acting as the third person narrator of this book – not telling the stories of these people, so much as introducing them and then allowing each of the thirty-five characters she features the freedom to tell their own individual stories. As she “listens” to these stories, she and the reader share the same vantage point – and the stories come to life in unique ways, some of them so unusual that most readers will become spellbound, wondering why they never thought to ask the questions about postwar life in Germany that these characters are answering without being asked. Though the individual stories are unique, brilliant in their execution, and enlightening for the reader – even readers who have read dozens of books about postwar Germany and the generation after that – Cristina Garcia performs magic by opening up even more new threads and suggesting dozens of issues which most of us have not yet even thought to explore. On the top of my Favorites List for the year so far.

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Originally published in Turkey in 1943, Sabahattin Ali’s novel Madonna in a Fur Coat remains an enduring legacy, reflecting many of his beliefs regarding the role of women within an unusual love story. A new 2013 edition of this book, seventy years after its original printing, has been “Turkey’s best-selling novel for the past three years,” according to the New York Journal of Books, this despite (or perhaps because of) current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s push to reestablish traditional gender roles within the country. In 1941, the unnamed narrator of the novel, quoted at the beginning of the review, is asked by Raif Efendi, a man he has come to know from his employment, to go to his house to retrieve a notebook in which he wrote intimately about his romantic life for ten years, now long past. The last passage in the journal, dated June 1933, conveys Efendi’s highly emotional state of mind: “I cannot go on with all this locked up inside me. There are so many things – that I need to say…but to whom? Can there be another soul wandering this great globe who is as lonely as I? Who would hear me out? Where would I begin?” Efendi’s eventual choice of this narrator to secure the notebook for him shows his absolute – and belated – trust in the narrator as a confidante since he feels that “all this locked up inside me” cannot be shared with his wife and daughter. Forthright and realistic regarding social issues, despite the overarching romantic story, the 1940s style feels a bit old-fashioned, but the themes could not be more current.

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Author Eugen Ruge grew up in East Berlin during the time of the Berlin Wall and lived there till the age of thirty-four, leaving the East for the West a year before the Wall fell, and perhaps it is this background which enables him to create a main character like Peter Handke. Handke is disconnected from those around him, alienated, his profound loss of motivation preventing him from making changes in his own world. Like the author, Handke is also a man from Berlin, one who has just lost his girlfriend and his sense of direction, and he has decided to start over in a new country. Not as young as he seems, he is a former professor of chemical engineering with a well-paid, permanent position, one he has recently resigned in order to become a writer. A novel of absurdity which sometimes borders on the bizarre, Cabo de Gata (“Cape of the Cat”) begins with Peter’s travels from Basel to Barcelona and then on to Andalusia, the southernmost region of Spain. Peter Handke is not a “hero” or even an anti-hero. He is too neutral and uncommunicative to attract the long-term interest of the reader, and his journey is a solitary one, with no antagonist, other than life itself, to fight him. He raises questions but does not come to many conclusions, and those he does draw are often offbeat and darkly comic. The novel ends without a clear resolution, adding to the feeling that this novel defies all the “rules” and presents itself on its own terms. Readers who can be satisfied with letting the novel unfold in its own way will enjoy this unusual and often humorous creation which offers more than mere laughs.

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From the outset of this tragicomic novel, Spanish author David Trueba’s ability to visualize and create intense word pictures dominates his style, making the reading of this novel a special treat on several different levels. Not only does he show the places and people surrounding his main character, Beto Sanz, instead of simply telling about them, but he also channels Beto’s own inner thoughts, providing lively commentary on virtually every aspect of his life and the activity around him. As the narrative opens, Beto has just arrived in Munich from Madrid for a conference for landscape architects, where his firm is a finalist for an international prize. He is nervous but full of hope as he prepares for his presentation to the jury, after which he and Marta, his partner and lover, will return immediately to Spain. Unfortunately, while he is there, Marta mistakenly sends him a message meant for her lover, and she returns to Spain alone, while he remains, miserable, in Munich. What follows is the intimate story of one calendar year from January, when Marta and Beto end their relationship, through December, when Beto begins to take some control of his life. The author, a well-regarded film maker, allows the reader to share Beto’s innermost thoughts and experience some of his questionable activities, while he also uses visual elements from art and architecture to ground Beto’s life in a greater reality.

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The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt by German author Wilhelm Genazino begins as an existential investigation by a self-conscious 46-year-old man into who he is and why he behaves as he does. His hypersensitive observations about the world around him show a man who “hardly thinks at all anymore—I only look round and about.” The unnamed speaker has been working for seven years as a “shoe tester,” a man who walks around Frankfurt testing quality shoes for a manufacturer and then reviewing them. The speaker enjoys this job, as his walking gives him unlimited opportunity to muse about his life, observe people from the past with whom he has had relationships, reminisce about their mutual experiences, and contemplate “the collective peculiarity of all life.” While he walks, he thinks about his childhood, his failed relationship with Lisa, with whom he has lived for several years, and his lack of professional motivation, and the reader observes him as he has an afternoon interlude with his hairdresser, begins a new relationship, meets a friend who is a failed photographer, gets a drastic cut in salary, and begins work as a vendor in a flea market. The author’s dry, tongue-in-cheek humor keeps the novel from imploding under its own weight, while the conclusion offers an upbeat future. Slow to start, the novel evolves into a delightful exploration of one man’s memories and his halting steps toward a new life.

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