This is a novel that definitely benefits from a second reading. Walter Abish asks the question, How German Is It, by presenting a deftly crafted narrative of a modern Germany by brushing the story against the past of Sturm und Drang, the horrors of the world wars, and the recently concluded Nazi infestation.
Abish writes a very provocative question:
Is it possible for anyone in Germany, nowadays, to raise his right hand, for whatever the reason, and not be flooded by the memory of a dream to end all dreams?
The cover blurb from the New Directions publication gives a quick overview of the novel:
On his return from Paris to his home city of Würtenburg, Ulrich Hargenau, whose father was executed for his involvement in the 1944 plot against Hitler, is compelled to ask himself, “How German am I?”—as he compares his own recent attempt to save his life, and his wife Paula’s, by testifying against fellow members to save his life, and his wife Paula’s, by testifying against fellow members of a terrorist group, with his father’s selfless heroism. Through Ulrich—privileged, upper class—we confront the incongruities of the new democratic Germany, in particular the flourishing community of Brumholdstein, named after the country’s greatest thinker, Brumhold, and built on the former site of a concentration camp. Paula’s participation in the destruction of a police station; the State’s cynical response to crush the terrorists; two attempts on Ulrich’s life; the discovery in Brumholdenstein of mass grave of death camp inmates—all these, with subtle irony, are presented as pieces of a puzzle spelling out the turmoil of society’s endeavor to avoid the implications of its menacing heritage.
Read it first for the story and then again and again for the thematic details and relationships … but read it!
Another author that has written novels presenting an attempt to resolve the negative impact on Germany resulting from the atrocities of the Nazi regime is Günter Grass. Again, an author not to be missed.
Perhaps an interesting parallel to explore in literature is the almost mythical memory of the often brutal extermination of the native peoples of America by the invading “White Man.” Is there a novel by a non-native who realistically deals with those memories? I immediately think of Dee Brown’s work, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, but that is more a history of the ill treatment of natives than a working out of the guilt the “White Man” must come to terms with.