Imagine a perfect (imperfect), remote and rural, Volkisch German landscape: replete with lush meadows and muddy, green pastures, well-ordered small villages abuzz with their perennial hierarchies of landed gentry, newly rich bourgeois grandees, the teachers and clergy, the pure and echt common Volk of farmers and housewives, the idle, reminiscing elderly, the burgeoning young. A country of those who remember an empire of Prussian states before its growth into a German Reich and nation, and of those who choose to forget foreign tongues, blood, or familiar horizons in order to become embedded, received, integrated, in a peculiar blend of other sameness.

It is a landscape of hazy horizons, vast, yet with a looming, forbidding presence; a frontier-land of ghosts with a centrality of its very own; a world where myth and legend, history and stories become enshrined in the reliquary of a new, bold, intrepid and radical modernity. Populate that landscape with a few type-worthy characters, give them a twist or two of drama and personality, and you have the setting and dramatis personae of Bernhard Schlink’s much anticipated, long-gestated new novel, Olga.

Olga is both a mystery and somewhat of a problem. It reintroduces several of Schlinck’s past key elements, such as the conceit of a working class/upper class divide, of the lives and spirits inhabiting worlds of in-betweenness, ambiguity, or historical anachronicity, of a German/non-German rift, of the different ontological experiences of men and women. At the heart of Schlinck’s story is the question of centrality and margins: of cities or urban spaces as the places of movement, community, even self-asserting anonymity, and of rural settings as the realms of hardness and hardship, of almost alienating traditionalism and nativism. Counterintuitively perhaps, or then again, not really so, Schlinck’s cities are centripetal, the countryside centrifugal.

Belonging, the tensions of movement and stasis, the agency and power (or the utter powerlessness) of the eye of the beholder, are the warp and weft of this ultimately perplexing narrative, which interweaves a strong sense of interiority with discourses of witnessing, of an externalised (yet inalienably implicated) critical observer. Reading is of course central and formative: from David Friedrich Strauss’ Life of Jesus, a polemical text advocating the historicity and non-divinity of the Son of God, which would be translated into English by George Eliot, as The Life of Christ, Critically Examined, to Goethe (both Werther and Faust) and Schiller, to Alexander von Humboldt and his notion of Kosmos, which sought to formulate a unified, scientific and cultural model of the world, a living philosophical Encyclopaedia as dreamt by the leading minds of the Enlightenment. Above all, Nietzsche, his eternal recurrence Übermensch and the twilight of the gods. As central a position is claimed by writing, both in the sense of producing a coherent narrative, master or subdominant, and in the ontological aesthetics of the gesture itself, in recording thoughts and feelings, events and causes, the words to see the world with. A pen, the legendary Soennecken no less, becomes a cult identity marker, a signifier here almost literally mightier than the sword. Olga, the main character, writes; her beloved, Herbert, seeks first to fight colonial visions in Samoa and South West Africa, then to break all boundaries of human limitation and endurance in an expedition to Karelia, Siberia, the North East Passage and the ends of the world. Olga grows old, full of enigmatic, eerily metatextual stories; Herbert disappears, as though he had never even existed, in a poignant denouement of Teutonic symbolism.

Schlinck opts for a meticulously obstructed view from the wings – a view many Germans would later claim to have experienced, thus imposing a secondary filter of invisibility and non-vision.”

Olga is as much about the stories of its characters as it is about the history of Germany, History as it relates to Germany. It is a bildungsroman of national presence, identity, identity politics and dialectics, and a picaresque novel of lives. As in The Reader, here also Schlinck asks about the genealogy of history: who makes it, who is behind it, what constitutes historical agency or even historicity? How does history happen? And can one make it unhappen? Here too, he chooses the micro rather than the macro focus as the better way towards the ur-sources, the germinal moments. It is a literary and narrative experiment with formidable antecedents, especially in Anna Gmeyner’s Manja (1938), an extraordinary, much overlooked novel anatomising German society at the time of the Nazis’ ascent into power through the eyes and actions, the rites of passage of five children, each of whom will grow into a key prefiguration of all that was about to ensue: Nazi perpetrator, marginal victim, onlooking shadow, vessel of history, or agent of entrepreneurial destiny.

Whether Schlinck had Manja in mind while writing Olga, the patterns overlap resonantly, poignantly and contrastingly. Where Gmeyner shows the banal growth of both good and evil, in starkly muted, greyscale, yet haunting and unforgettable drama, Schlinck opts for a meticulously obstructed view from the wings – a view many Germans would later claim to have experienced, thus imposing a secondary filter of invisibility and non-vision. Olga and Herbert start off as young children from almost fairy-tale-like contrapuntal backgrounds – he is the heir to landed fortune, she is the daughter of a Slav, further details largely unknown. They develop, predictably enough, a romantic and romanticised passion for each other, mostly as a result of their individual outlooks towards the world: Olga is a rooted centre, oblivious to peripheries; Herbert is the embodiment of the new German man, full of Wertherian angst, Wunderlust, and aspirations of tethering infinity. A third character, a boy who will grow into young adulthood in the new, post-war Germany of miraculous regeneration and pristine modernity, is added to the nexus halfway through the story. As their stories converge and diverge, at cascading turning points of history and the world, Schlinck projects the highly personalised experience of time and being of each character so that it assumes almost totalising ecumenical proportions: what they see is what is there to be seen; what they perceive, constitutes the absolute sum of perception itself; what they deduce from their empirical partaking in the process of historical becoming, emerges as the life lesson of a humanity whose encounter with the past allows only for one resolution as regards the future.

Olga’s shape of history is an odd one, by any account: she seems to float above both peaceful landscapes and battlefields, her gaze confirming or erasing at will.”

Schlinck’s a priori is that there is a problem with Germany’s past – with Germany’s history. It is a problem of a genealogy of violence, of a philosophical, ideological and cultural tradition that runs counter or alongside it, a problem of beginnings, middle-points, endings and continuities. “History is not the past as it really was. It’s the shape we give it” emerges as an axiomatic conviction and as a lodestar with which to navigate the Scyllas and Charybdes, with which to heal or palliate consciences, cleanse stains and objectify traumas and experiences. Olga’s shape of history is an odd one, by any account: she seems to float above both peaceful landscapes and battlefields, her gaze confirming or erasing at will. Herbert fights a WWI that almost never feels as though it happened; Olga persists through the ’20s and the ’30s with no sense of sociohistorical development, or even detached vision; WWII in all its ramifications appears never to have occurred. Fast forward (or rather zoom past through the slow self-reflexivity of Olga’s almost illusory infatuation with Herbert) to the ’50s and a new Germany, and an elderly Olga has now shifted from detachment to obsession. She has pinned down the cause behind the famous Drama of Germany, the Faustian nightmare that somehow pervades, yet is never really there. Reconciliation, in the egalitarianism afforded by cemeteries, where “everybody was equal”, where all the dead, “the soldiers and the Jews and the farmers and the people buried in the Bergfriedhof” can lie together, in final brotherhood, is what will make things right, undo wrongs. As for history, “the shape we give it” can be redressed, taken in here or there, or let out, according to one’s needs, just the way Olga, formerly a teacher, then a seamstress, knows how to do with clothes. It can be undone too, if one tears down the statues of those who now singlehandedly are deemed to carry the blame. Olga thinks genocide is too “grand” a word for the German killings of the Herero; the young boy who grows into a man says that in Berlin she would also “find the Chancellery and the Bundestag building and the Holocaust memorial too grand”. Olga dies while blowing up a statue of the father of all German evils in her view, Otto von Bismarck, a final act of resistance to… one wonders. Is it to the currents of German history that so brutally marked the 20th century? Is it to the remembrance of actions and inactions that made such processes possible? “Under the Nazis the world had become noisy,” according to Olga. “They had installed loudspeakers everywhere that were constantly pursuing you, blaring out speeches and exhortations and military marches. But nothing is so bad that, in order not to hear it, one would wish to give up hearing the good things as well.” On wonders, again, what those good things are, according to Olga, and to the shape Olga gives to history…

Ferdinand, the boy-turned-man in the new Germany, traces down the letters Olga had been writing to a living, then dead Herbert. These letters are one of the shapes of German history, self-contained, self-maintained, cryptically insular or self-delusional. They are, Ferdinand claims, a way “to finally grasp the past as it really was”, and that ‘reality’ is full of deeply unsettling ambiguities, outright erasures, elisions, and expurgations, nestled within a narrative construct that sets a plea for sentimentalised empathy and reunification against the consequences of critical objectivity. Schlinck has invited his readers before to see through the eyes of the unseen and the unseeing, yet in Olga the problematisation of the agency or substance of history allows for little if any dialectics, or even for the dilemma of human ambiguities. It is highly uncertain whether the aim is to nebulise memory, or attack kitschification, whether the programmatic intent is to confront us with denial (the sheer ‘unconsciousness’ of such denial is troublingly jarring), or to promote a way beyond the “rifts” that Ferdinand can’t bear, providing a communalised shared shape of history, a history that will have “lost its horror”, like the cemeteries Olga finds so soothing. A burial ground for history? One wonders, in troubled bewilderment, as to the shape Schlinck has given to Olga’s story and Germany’s history…

 

Bernhard Schlink was born in Germany in 1944. A professor emeritus of law at Humboldt University, Berlin and Cardozo Law School, New York, he is the author of the internationally bestselling novels The Reader, which became an Oscar-winning film starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, and The Woman on the Stairs. He lives in Berlin and New York. Olga, translated by Charlotte Collins, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in hardback, eBook and audio download.
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Author portrait © Alberto Venzago/Diogenes Verlag

Charlotte Collins is a literary translator from the German and a former co-chair of the UK Translators Association. Her previous translations include Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life (Picador, 2015), Walter Kempowski’s Homeland (2018), and with Ruth Martin, Nino Haratischvili’s The Eighth Life (Scribe, 2020).

Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.
bookanista.com/author/mika/

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