Winter Work, by Dan Fesperman

The eleven months between the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the reunification of Germany in October 1990 must have been a strange time. Strange is probably an understatement. For decades, Berlin had been one of the foci of the Cold War. It was a place where East Germans had tried to escape to the West. Spies and police from both the West and the Soviet sphere of influence battled covertly throughout the divided city. But then, the wall came down and everything changed. There was suddenly space to speak freely and renegotiate old alliances. Dan Fesperman’s Winter Work takes place in that space, among people who were used to following the old rules but now find themselves scrambling for safe harbor before someone decides that they know too much.

Winter Work centers on two characters. Emil Grimm is a former high-ranking officer of the Stasi, a feared organization that recruited an estimated 16% of the East German population as informants (figure given by one of the characters in the book). Our other protagonist, Claire Saylor, works for the CIA. Under the old rules, the two would be enemies. With the wall down and secrets going at a premium, there’s a chance that Emil and Claire could become allies.

The novel opens with a disturbing interruption to Emil’s daily walk. Not far from his house in the exclusive woods north of Berlin, Emil finds a group of special police investigating the scene of an apparent suicide. The dead man is Emil’s old comrade from the Stasi, Lothar. Because the man in charge of the special police on the scene is an old semi-enemy of Emil’s, Emil has to watch his words carefully when he talks to Krauss. For example, he refrains from pointing out to Krauss that the gun is being held in his Lothar’s off-hand. Emil only really managed to get out of the uncomfortable situation when a detective with the Volkspolzei turns up to officially investigate the death. (Krauss’s people only do unofficial investigations. Mostly they make things disappear). Meanwhile, Claire is trying to find a way to get back out into the field, after being roped into a CIA operation that amounts to cold-calling everyone in their East German Rolodex in order to buy secrets. When her boss offers her a chance to meet with someone who says he has something to sell, Claire leaps at the chance.

We learn that Emil and Lothar were planning to sell some of the secrets they’ve collected from the Stasi, in exchange for money and a safe place in the West. With Lothar dead, Emil has to take the lead, even though he’s always worked desk jobs for the Stasi. He uses everything he remembers from training field agents to sneak around the upheaval in Berlin after stepping into Lothar’s shoes. First, he attempts to meet with the CIA agent (Claire) Lother arranged to meet, only for that meeting to go bad when Soviet thugs blunder in with threats of violence.

All of this happens in the first chapters of Winter Work and things never really slow down as Emil and Claire try to work their schemes. The only places where the plot slows down (as if for a breather) offer backstory for the protagonists. We learn about Emil’s wife, who has ALS, and the more-than-friend who takes care of both of them. We learn about Claire’s frustrations with superior officers who won’t let her follow her own initiative. And on top of the main plot and the backstory, we get plenty of lessons in the free-for-all fighting between the CIA, the Soviets (who don’t seem to realize that their regime is going to fall pretty soon), and East Germans over scraps of information. Oh, and real-life super-spy Markus Wolf has a not-insignificant role in this book. It’s a lot.

Winter Work is one of the best thrillers I’ve read in a while. Although the plot races along, character development is never sacrificed. The stakes remain high and Fesperman does outstanding work at recreating the tense and wild atmosphere of Berlin during the winter of 1989-1990. I highly recommend this book to fans of the genre who like their thrillers based in real history.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, c. 1963 (Image via Wikicommons)

Where You Come From, by Saša Stanišić

There are some people who you never want to ask where they are from unless you’re ready to sit down with them for hours, possibly over a coffee or tea, and listen to them spin out stories about not only where they come from, but also when and who they come from. Since I love a hot beverage and a story-spinner, I was happy to sit down (metaphorically) with Saša Stanišić as he tried to explain where/who/when he comes from in Where You Come From (expertly translated by Damion Searls).

Speaking strictly geographically, Saša Stanišić and his family are from Višegrad, in what is now the Republika Srpska (Bosnia and Herzegovina). Speaking temporally, the Stanišićs are from Yugoslavia. When civil and ethnic violence broke out when the country started to splinter in 1991, they fled to Germany. Speaking genealogically (I guess?), Stanišić comes from a sprawling family who live in Višegrad and the remote village of Oskoruša. A web of family stories and memories link them together: grandfathers who rafted the Drina, a great aunt who wanted to go into space, a grandmother who always called Stanišić a donkey. But Stanišić is also a refugee boy who grew into a man among many other refugees in Heidelburg. Where he lived, no one was from ’round here. All of this has given Stanišić a very reflective attitude and a semi-permanent sense of being an outsider.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Stanišić doesn’t tell his story in a straight line. He constantly jumps back and forth through time to give a complete answer to the question of where he comes from. This means we visit Yugoslavia in its last decade, a more peaceful Bosnia/Republika Srpska in the 2010s, with Germany in between. Perhaps the one constant in this work is Stanišić’s grandmother, Kristina, who was his link to the past even through her heart-breaking decline into dementia. So many things remind Stanišić of visiting his grandmother in Višegrad and Oskoruša. The more time I spent with this book, the more I started to see why. His grandmother, who weathered the horrific violence of the civil war, was a rock. Even after she started to show the signs of dementia, Kristina was stubborn about staying the same and living independently. She is also someone who appreciates a good story or a trip down memory lane.

Where You Come From is a strange ride, but one I grew to enjoy once I settled in with the Stanišić clan and the author’s penchant for time-traveling through his own life. Readers who like a non-linear autofictional narrative will enjoy this personal and family history.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

A panorama of Višegrad and the Drina (Image via Wikicommons)

What They Didn’t Burn, by Mel Laytner

Josef Lajtner rarely spoke of what happened to him between 1940 and 1945. His son, journalist Mel and author of What They Didn’t Burn, only knew a few things. He knew that Josef had been imprisoned at Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, and Buchenwald. He knew that his father had survived partly because he knew how to weld, but there were hints of strange stories and bits of luck that the elder Lajtner never really spoke about. Later, when Mel interviews another Holocaust survivor and asks why the survivor never recorded his testimony, the survivor says, “Why should I?…I don’t have to justify my survival.” Although he never said, I wonder if Josef rarely spoke about the Holocaust because he also didn’t want to discuss why he lived and so many other didn’t. What They Didn’t Burn is the fruit Mel Laytner’s efforts to fill in the blanks. He doesn’t “justify” his father’s survival; he treats it like the extraordinary occurrence that it was.

In the years after the Holocaust, numerous organizations—the Auschwitz Museum, Yad Vashem, the Arolsen Archives—have answered queries from survivors and descendants of survivors looking for information. Mel Laytner sends out calls for any piece of documentation that can help him find out what happened to his father. Laytner also seeks out his father’s friends to glean more names, dates, and events that he can use to trace Josef’s path across Poland and Germany as he worked in a series of forced labor camps. He also travels to Poland, to the towns where his Lajtner relatives lived and the remains of camps where his father and thousands of other Jews struggled to live. By the end of all that travel and research, Laytner knows a lot more about how his father survived, but he’s also left with big questions that he wishes his father was still around to talk over with him.

One question that frequently arises in What They Didn’t Burn is how far can one bend the rules to survive? How far should one bend those rules? The Nazis didn’t give Jews and other prisoners in their custody enough food to live for long. To endure the work, the cold, and the punishments, people had to “organize” food and clothing. Organizing (this verb was constantly used by the survivors Laytner interviews) can range from foraging while on work details to bartering to straight-up theft. Some Jews became kapos for extra rations and privileges. Josef Lajtner was offered a post as a kapo, but refused it because he wouldn’t commit the acts of violence that the position would require of him. Laytner tells us that kapos are a taboo subject among survivors, yet offers multiple examples of Jewish men who used the post to lessen the suffering of their fellow prisoners. Laytner—and his father’s decisions—ask us to take a more nuanced look at the things people had to do in the face of an entire regime and its allies trying to destroy them.

Laytner also touches on the changes in attitudes toward and memorialization of the Holocaust. When he first visits Poland, for example, the Blechhammer camp where his father was imprisoned for most of the war was mostly ruins. There was a sign that let visitors know where they were and what the site was. They had to imagine the rest from what they’d learned or remembered. Years later, parts of the camp had been rebuilt. The difference between Laytner’s first and second visits to the bigger cities in Poland are more troubling. Holocaust tourism (if you’ll forgive the phrase) had become a fully developed industry between those visits. What does it mean for our understanding of the Holocaust that, in some places, no traces remain while in others, history has been recreated for public consumption?

Nothing is simple in What They Didn’t Burn. The documents Laytner receives are complicated by their context and provenance. The physical sites are burdened by years of either erasing the past or preserving it, resurgent anti-Semitism, and the sheer passage of time. I appreciated all of the challenging questions Laytner raises. All too often, I see history oversimplified to the point that it loses meaning. To really think about history and its complexity is to truly engage with it and learn. This may not be the most innovative or startling work about the Holocaust I’ve ever read, but its honesty and Laytner’s depth of scholarship are a perfect tonic to novels that use the Holocaust as window-dressing or nonfiction that plays it safe.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch, by Rivka Galchen

How we deal with adversity in life depends a lot on how we answer this question: why do bad things happen to good people? Some people are more comfortable with chaos and don’t believe in karma or divine action. Others look for a bigger reason than A causes B and shit happens. In the 1600s, in the Holy Roman Empire and a lot of other places in Europe, the bigger reason was witches. If something bad happened to you, your family, your business, or your livestock, it was because you’d had the misfortune of getting on the wrong side of a witch. The real bad luck, I think, is if you’re the one accused of being a witch, like the protagonist of Rivka Galchen’s Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch.

I didn’t know before I started this book that it was based on real history. In the 1610s and 1620s, the astronomer (and writer of proto science fiction, it turns out) Johannes Kepler had to take breaks from his position as Imperial Mathematician to the Holy Roman Emperor to defend his mother from charges of witchcraft. Katharina Kepler is the kind of woman who annoys people, even those who say they like her. She says whatever comes into her head. She insists on doing things her way. The fact that quite a few people in her town owe her money is also a mark against her. But everyone thinks that she might have been alright if she hadn’t filed for slander against the first people who officially accused her of being a witch and embarrassed the local aristocracy. From there, things get increasingly dire.

Galchen wrote in her afterword that she used translated court documents from Kepler’s trial, letters, and other contemporary sources to give structure to a narrative that moves between Katharina’s version of events and those of her neighbor Simon, who agrees to act as Katharina’s guardian (because women needed one in those days). Reading all these different accounts—the things the characters say and purposefully don’t say—makes for a very interesting story of betrayal, denunciation, lies, loyalty, and tangled legal proceedings. And I do love a book with unreliable narrators.

It was an interesting experience to read Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch shortly after reading A Demon-Haunted Land, by Monica Black, a nonfiction account of healers and witch accusations in Germany after World War II. Black’s book is full of citations to philosophers, psychologists, and thinkers who theorize about why people believe in witches. I felt more prepared for Galchen’s fictionalized version of Katharina Kepler’s story; I paid a lot more attention to the hidden motives of Katharina’s accusers. The first accusers were, I think, motivated by money that they owe Katharina. But then things start to take on a life of their own as more and more “witnesses” come forth to link a look or a bad word or a remedy from Katharina to something bad that later happened to them. Black’s book showed me the “logic” of witch accusations. Which is to say, because I knew more about how accusations of witchcraft come about, I was lot more afraid for Katharina than I might have been before I read A Demon-Haunted Land because I knew there would be no reasoning with the people pointing fingers at her.

Galchen writes in a very modern-sounding idiom. (There are a lot of people saying “okay” in this book.) The writing style, the use of historical research, and sense of time passing made for an absorbing reading experience. I got completely pulled into Katharina’s life and trials. This was historical fiction at its best.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

A Demon-Haunted Land, by Monica Black

After World War II, Germany had to rebuilt itself literally, politically and—as we learn in Monica Black’s intriguing book, A Demon-Haunted Land—psychologically. Black dove into state and newspaper archives to reveal a history I’d never heard about. In the 1950s, spiritual healers and witch hunts broke out in the new West Germany. Faith healers are nothing new to American me, but in Germany? And witch hunts? Black uses the evidence to explain how healers and hunters were a deeply, troubling psychological response to the crimes and horrors of the Third Reich.

Black’s argument rests on two main stories and on the work of mid-Twentieth century German psychologists. After an introduction that sets the stage, Black begins the story of Bruno Gröning. After service in the Wehrmacht, Gröning supposedly cured a boy of life-long paralysis. This cure—and Gröning’s talk of God and evil people—turned Gröning into an instant celebrity. The boy’s family home became a pilgrimage point for hundreds of ailing Germans, hoping for a miracle. The crowds drawn by Gröning cause local governments to urge the healer to move on, back and forth across Germany. From 1949 to his fall from grace in court in 1957, Gröning was seen by some Germans as the answer to all their problems…and by others as a fraud. Black then moves on to tell the story of another healer, Waldemar Eberling, who started to (indirectly) accuse his neighbors of evil-doing. He is a murkier figure than Gröning. Where Gröning is portrayed as mostly harmless, Eberling’s accusations lead to at least one nervous breakdown and is generally viewed as a nastier person.

While Black discusses the careers (for lack of a better word) of Gröning and Eberling, she reveals a long-standing controversy in German medicine. At the same time that Germany was making incredible advances in pharmacy and medical practice in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the country also apparently had a roaring trade in folk and lay medicine. Healers would use Besprechen—spoken charms or formulas—to break curses and cure people. Patients could buy devil’s dung (asafoetida) at any pharmacy. Before and after World War II, officials and doctors wondered about how to stifle folk healing. At the same time, some psychologists argued that folk healers could help patients who had afflictions that we would now diagnose as psychosomatic or conversion disorders.

Black also dissects the issue of trust and mistrust in post-war Germany as part of her larger effort to explain why faith/folk healers and witch hunts were so popular. She argues that many people felt betrayed by their institutions: the government, doctors, etc. Turning to folk healers must have made sense to people who found that their doctors couldn’t do anything for them other than to say, “it was all in their heads.” Black goes so far as to argue that some Germans lost their faith in reality. She writes that, for years, ordinary Germans had been told that they were invincible and that it was their destiny to rule the world. The last years of the war, their defeat by the Allies, and the Allied occupation must have been seen by some Germans as punishment. No doctor can help someone who feels like fate has just slapped them, but maybe a folk healer could.

I was very interested in Gröning and Eberling’s stories, and was impressed by Black’s industrious work in all those archives. That said, A Demon-Haunted Land felt a bit thin to me. I just couldn’t quite buy all of Black’s argument that post-war Germany was completely swept up in supernatural fears. All of Black’s sources are articles from news magazines and newspapers, court documents, and published books. I missed seeing ordinary Germans speaking for themselves. There’s a lot of theorizing in this book, but not a whole lot of direct proof from Germans who sought healing or were accused of being witches to support it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Last Million, by David Nasaw

World War II did not end on V-E and V-J Days. Hostilities ceased on those days but the war churned up so many lives that it would take more than a decade to find new homes for the more than a million displaced persons in David Nasaw’s new book, The Last Million. Nasaw chronicles the struggles and political wrangling over what happened to people who, after the war, had no homes to go return to or couldn’t go home because of violent antisemitism or the growing strength of the Soviet Union in the Eastern Bloc or who would face prosecution for war crimes and collaboration in their nation of origin. This thoroughly researched book covers everything from just before the end of the war to when the last displaced persons camp in 1957.

After the war, Germany saw waves of people coming in from concentration camps and from newly Communist countries stretching from Estonia to Ukraine. Among these displaced people were liberated Jews, people who couldn’t return because of the Soviet Union, expelled Volksdeutsche, and people running from allied justice. Nasaw bounced back and forth from each of these groups as the Allies wrangle over their fates. Nasaw’s account—fully documented with quotes from Allied personnel and politicians and DPs—reveals a series of almost insurmountable problems that kept DPs in the camps for far to long.

The biggest problem is widespread antisemitism. After the war, no one wanted to take in Jewish DPs. Although the Allies would house, feed, and treat the medical ailments of the displaced persons, none of the Allied leaders seemed willing to able to bring Jewish people into their countries. American President Truman knew that Congress wouldn’t change immigration laws to allow Jews or people from now Communist countries in. Prime Minister Attlee’s government was later willing to cherry-pick non-Jewish DPs to do jobs Britons didn’t want to do. Jewish people often couldn’t go back to their homes. Not only were their communities obliterated, but they faced new pogroms by people who were happy to have seen the Jews gone forever.

The next big problem faced by Jewish DPs was the question of Palestine. Attlee had to walk a tight rope between keeping peace with Arabs in Palestine by limiting Jewish immigration as much as possible and Allied pressure to send Jewish people there. Many (but not all) surviving Jewish people wanted to go to Palestine to create a Jewish state, but Palestine was already inhabited by people whose families had been there for generations.

Lastly, Volksdeutsche, former SS soldiers, former concentration camp guards, and others who had committed or been involved in war crimes destroyed their documents or lied about where they’d been during the war to hid under the cover of being a displaced person so that they wouldn’t face summary justice if they’d gone home. It infuriated me to see that so many of these people slipped through the screening process and have their visas approved for the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and other countries.

Nasaw’s The Last Million contains so much more than what I’ve written here. My summary certainly doesn’t capture Nasaw’s gift with research and use of quotes to bring personalities to the page. I found myself shocked, saddened, cheered, and frustrated by the events recounted in The Last Million. I also feel like Nasaw gave me a graduate course in the history of displaced people. This book is among the best nonfiction I have ever read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Children in Schauenstein DP camp, c. 1946 (Image via Wikicommons)

The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures, by Jennifer Hofmann

On the surface, the absurd and the surreal seem self-indulgent. Works in this group are highly self-referential. They only make sense if you forget everything outside of the work. You have to forget reality to understand them. Jennifer Hofmann’s haunting novel, The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures, is a good example of why we need surrealism. As Kafka, Magritte, and the rest knew, sometimes the only way to communicate the insanity of daily modern life is to create something just as insane.

Bernd Zeiger is a very ordinary man living in a very insane country. His entire adult life, Bernd has worked for Management—an organization that is clearly the Stasi. The Stasi, along with the East German government, created what I’ve heard called the most surveilled nation in world history. Zeiger’s first major assignment was to work with a psychiatrist to create a manual that would utterly demoralize and disorient targets of the state government. As the novel opens, Zeiger is at a press conference watching another agent give an announcement all according to the manual. The other agent dresses dully, speaks dully, and uses deeply dull bureaucratic language even as he talks about increasing demonstrations around the country. We have the benefit of knowing that East Germany is in its final days. Zeiger, however, and the rest of his comrades believe that the state will march on into the foreseeable future.

East German workers constructing the Berlin Wall, 1961 (Image via Wikicommons)

The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures quickly evolves from this relatively comprehensible beginning into layers of strange adventures. Zeiger roves East Berlin, searching for a lost girl who caught his fancy, only to fall prey to memories of the worst thing Zeiger ever did and to the machinations of other Management agents who are caught up in their own existential death spirals. Evens grow increasingly bizarre as Zeiger finds out that he’s being spied on by his colleagues, who want to find out what Zeiger knows about a man Zeiger helped incarcerate around the time he finished the infamous manual.

In other hands, this novel might have been a story about a man realizing that he’d hurt people in service to a country that didn’t deserve his loyalty. (If you’d like to see that story, I strongly recommend The Lives of Others.) Instead, it’s a story about a group of men who go down with the ship. They’ve been so warped by Management (using Zeiger’s manual) that they can’t imagine a world without the state. They can’t conceive of it ever ending. Fittingly enough, The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures concludes in a mental hospital.

This novel is a deeply unsettling read, full of paranoia and weirdness. Readers who like to shake off sanity for a little while and dive into surrealism to see what they can learn should enjoy this one. I’d also recommend it to readers who are curious about what life was like just on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Eighth Life, by Nino Haratischwili

Trigger warning for rape.

It feels like a century since I started reading The Eighth Life, by Nino Haratishwili (and translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin)—but not because it was slow. It felt like a century because its plot spans almost the entire twentieth century, crammed into just under 1,000 pages. In this monumental novel, Niza Jashi recounts the history of her family since the Bolshevik Revolution to the fall of the Soviet Union to her niece, Brilka. Not only do we get a ground view of Soviet history from a country not often seen in English-language fiction (Georgia) but also the troubled history of a family of battling parents and children.

After a brief introduction that puts Niza and Brilka together on a trip across Europe, Niza turns her attention to the 1910s and her great-grandmother, Stasia. Stasia is the privileged daughter of a chocolatier in Tbilisi. She dreams of being a ballet dancer for the Ballets Russes, but infatuation and history get in the way. Stasia marries a White (later Red) Army officer after a whirlwind courtship before the officer heads off to fight. This is the first in a series of couples divided by war. Sadly, no one in the Jashi clan ever seems to find lasting happiness again.

Niza’s tale contains numerous tales of family members who grow apart because of war or allegiance to (or rebellion against) the Soviet regime. Over and over, parents push their children to become their ideal next generation. Sometimes this means coddling them so much that they don’t understand the dangers of speaking their mind. In others, it means taking a child away from one parent to raise them in Moscow. Every attempt at perfection implodes and leaves members of the family bearing irreconcilable grudges against each other. If The Eighth Life had been set in a capitalist country, I think the children of each generation would have run as far and as fast as they could. In fact, the later generations do just this. But because this novel is primarily set in Tbilisi, Georgia, it’s not possible for the Jashis to do anything other than live in close quarters, stewing in resentment.

Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin beautifully translate this sprawling novel. Haratischwilli’s writing style—which jumps from character to character as Niza shares everything she ever learned about her family—never drags. The plot also never calms down, in part because of history and in part because of intra-family psychological warfare. I’m not sure if I would have been able to read this book in one long session. Deadlines for NetGalley and Edelweiss had me hitting pause on The Eighth Life to read other books. I was always able to pick right back up where I left off, but refreshed from a small break from the Jashis. This might sound like whining; it’s really not. It’s just that there is a lot in the 944 pages of The Eighth Life. Readers should be prepared for a long haul.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Marrow and Bone, by Walter Kempowski

Every now and then, I see pictures that blend old and new images of a place to show how much has changed and how much as stayed the same. A lot of them show scenes from World War II alongside rebuilt walls and buildings. The protagonist of Marrow and Bone, by Walter Kempowski and pitch-perfectly translated by Charlotte Collins, Jonathan Fabrizius, has the same kind of vision. His interest in medieval history and his own family history from the end of World War II is always at the front of his brain. Fabrizius isn’t particularly bothered by his past vision, but he does wonder what it means that history is only lightly buried below the mundane, contemporary surface, waiting for someone to scratch.

Jonathan lives a comfortable—if not wealthy—life, expending the bare amount of effort to maintain his relationship with a Swedish part-time curator and his job as a freelance writer of cultural articles. Eventually, he plans to write a book about brick Gothic cathedrals in Europe but there’s all that endless research to get through first. The arrival of a job offer intrigues Jonathan enough to get him up off his couch. A Japanese car company wants Jonathan to travel to northwest Poland with a company representative and a famous race car driver in one of the company’s vehicles, then write up the sights, sounds, and car specs for a feature article. The big draws for Jonathan are a) a chance to see one of his brick Gothic “Goddesses of the North” in person and, more importantly, b) see the place where his mother had died after giving birth to him and the place where his father had been killed on the Vistula Spit.

Traveling with this trio is a strange experience. While Jonathan spends time walking down his own memory lane, the company rep chatters to him about what he should be writing down and unraveling as their careful plans go awry in Poland. The only one who seems to be having a good time is the race car driver. He’s having a good time because he doesn’t expect anything. Also, since he’s the driver, he has a captive audience for his tales of driving glory. At times, Marrow and Bone struck me as a more serious version of Three Men in a Boat because of the string of disasters that occur.

St. Mary’s Church, Gdańsk, Poland, c. 1900, one of the “Goddesses of the North” (Image via Wikicommons)

Marrow and Bone struck me as a story about a whole host of people who aren’t all that tethered to reality. Jonathan’s lost in the past. His girlfriend and friends in Hamburg are always wheeling and dealing to make their fortunes. The company rep is determined to be upbeat no matter what happens. All of these characters, except for Jonathan, are dancing along the surface of some deep, violent history that they refuse to imbue with any meaning.

Marrow and Bone was no doubt written for a German and European audience but, as I read it, I couldn’t help thinking about all the violent history that lives below the surface in my patch of the planet. Where I live was (is) Ute territory. This territory was later taken by Mormon settlers, who have a pretty dark history. Wars have been fought here. Sometimes, like Jonathan, I’ve wondered what this land might have looked like before it was built up by settlers. Also, like Jonathan, I didn’t have to stretch my imagination all that much; there are close-by remnants of wild landscapes that I can easily mentally populate with bison and horses. Thinking about places and history this way is a curious blend of wonderment and sadness. The wonder comes from imagining all of the years that came before, all the people who might have walked here once upon a time. The sadness comes from crimes and deaths that had to have happened here without anyone facing justice. We can pave it over, sure, but the history is still there for those who bother to learn about it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Tyll, by Daniel Kehlmann

Normally I don’t comment on the covers, but I have to say that I vastly prefer the original German cover.

There is no such thing as verifiable truth in Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll. There are only the “truths” and “facts” that the characters can convince each other of; he who argues loudest and with the most convolution wins. There are so many ludicrous examples of circular logic that I couldn’t help but laugh and roll my eyes at the same time. This intellectual landscape is the setting for Kehlmann’s retelling of an old German legend, Till Eulenspiegel, as he bounces around the Thirty Years’ War, political machinations, one witch trial, a possible encounter with the devil, and a lot of squirrelly logic from some of the leading minds of the age.

Tyll is the son of a miller. This sounds ordinary enough until you meet Tyll’s father, Claus. Claus Ulenspiegel (as it’s spelled in the book) has been exposed to a dangerous amount of alchemy, philosophy, and the science of the day. Consequently, it’s not hard to arrest, convict, and execute Claus as a warlock. After his father’s murder, Tyll runs away from his village with Nele, who becomes his adopted sister. Throughout the novel, we check in with Tyll as he becomes a traveling jester, occasional refugee, and briefly court jester to Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen. I caught some references to other historical figures that appear in this book, like Athanasius Kircher and Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. I’m not well-versed enough in seventeenth-century German history and culture to catch the others.

There is plot in Tyll, but most of the book reads like a series of set-pieces in which characters pontificate on their latest theories or argue with each other. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of the barrage of words coming at me. It was only after a few chapters that I started to see a pattern. Kehlmann (albeit a few centuries too late) takes the absolute piss out of the torturous logic like that used by two different characters to explain the existence of dragons, based on the evidence that substances that are similar to dragon blood or bile, can be used to heal people—if the sick person dies, it’s only because they couldn’t get the real stuff to heal the patient. Makes total, sense right? Claus Ulenspiegel torments himself by trying to work out at which point a heap of grains stops being a heap if you take away a grain at a time. The only people who seem to be aware of the absurdities all around them are Tyll himself (who uses it to play sometimes vicious pranks) and, later in her life, Elizabeth Stuart, who pulls off an incredible political gambit that would take pages to explain.

Woodcut of Eulenspiegel, c. 1515 (Image via Wikicommons)

It should be no surprise, with all this intellectual chicanery, that another theme of Tyll is the malleability of history. Not only is history written by the victors: it’s also written (often in advance) by the people who live long enough to tell the tale. Again, most of the action takes place during one of the most confusing and violent conflicts in European history, so surviving is a sort of victory. At one point, Tyll and the people who have been sent to fetch him to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor blunder into one of the last big battles of the war. Near the end of the book, Tyll manages a last visit to Nele—who left the road for a comfortable marriage and settled life—in a scene that implies that Tyll’s life has become so storied that he will, effectively, become immortal. The details of real experiences and life never matter in this book. The legend is what matters.

I’m glad I requested a copy of this book from Edelweiss. I had a great time reading this book. This might sound weird, considering the frequent violence that afflicts Tyll and the other characters. I was hugely entertained by the uproariously twisted intellectual efforts of many of the characters. I laughed out loud at several parts of Tyll. Above all, I was interested to see how historical events were almost immediately spun by characters to their own advantage. (Elizabeth and her husband, Frederick V, both convince themselves that they were the voice of reason when Frederick was asked to be the King of Bohemia—a decision that touched off the Thirty Years War.) Novels that highlight the phenomenon of, for lack of a better term, creative historiography fascinate me.

I’m not sure who to recommend this book to. I know there are other readers who enjoy intellectual puzzles that might like Tyll. It is a very good book and Kehlmann is a very talented writer. The problem is that this book is so unique and it requires not a small amount of background knowledge that I feel like I might need to administer a quiz before I try to talk people into reading it. Tyll is a (worthwhile) challenge for fans of smart historical fiction.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.