Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Review Post 33 - Friendship and Innocence

Putting aside my predilection for Japanese literature and all things Victoriana, one of my most prominent reading interests is German-language literature, especially twentieth century works.  Of course, as soon as you start to think about that, you realise that there's not just an elephant in the room; rather, there's a whole herd of rampaging pachyderms jumping up and down on your sofa and trampling the cushions underfoot.  However, while books set during the wars can be classics (one instantly springs to mind...), many works examine the times between the wars, or post-1945.  And that's where we're going today...


As alluded to above, the classic war novel is Erich-Maria Remarque's Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front).  Sadly, I read it for the last time shortly before creating this blog, so you'll just have to put up with my telling you that it's really, really good.  Remarque followed his war novel with Der Weg Zurück (The Way Back, or Coming Home as it's usually translated), a book examining the problems the surviving soldiers faced on their return to a defeated Germany.  The final book in Remarque's post-WW1 trilogy, Drei Kameraden (Three Comrades), moves the action on to 1928/9 and follows three former soldiers as they slowly start to think about settling down and building a 'normal' life for themselves.

Robby Lohkamp is happily drifting along in the company of his two army colleagues, Gottfried Lenz and Otto Köster, working at Otto's car repair workshop by day and moving from bar to bar at night in search of distraction.  This comfortable life of nothingness comes to an end when he meets the beautiful Pat, destined to become the love of his life.  Although it sounds like the start of a run-of-the-mill love story, Robby and Pat's relationship is slightly more complex than that, threatened by the ghosts of Robby's past, the uncertain economic environment of the present and certain unfortunate events yet to come.

Remarque captures the feeling of the age beautifully, a generation of young men unable to commit to settling down, unwilling to allow themselves to believe in normality lest it be torn from them again.  As times become harder, people roam the streets, looking for work or, in some cases, just a warm place to while away a few hours.  This climate of anxiety and fear drives people to seek comfort in little pleasures, often of the alcoholic variety, and where little money is available, violence is always just around the corner.  Ironically, after fighting to bring about peace, the old soldiers have returned to a society hell bent on conflict and destruction.

And yet there is an underlying sense of calm and hope throughout the novel.  The very idea of living on the edge means that the people are only too willing to make the most of any opportunity to squeeze some enjoyment out of life.  The writer constantly pauses the action to focus on the more tranquil side of life; flowers, plum trees blooming overnight, waves crashing onto the shore, a misty evening sitting in a cemetery watching the trees fade slowly from view...  When no-one knows what tomorrow will bring, it's best to live for the moment.

While Drei Kameraden is essentially a paean to love, both romantic and collegial, there is a darker, political edge to it (which led to its banning in Germany).  The later scenes, depicting political assemblies where dispirited workers drink in the tirades of revolutionary orators, help the reader to see where Germany was heading at this time and why the people were prepared to listen to people like Hitler.  The crowd stand and stare at the speakers, convinced not so much by the ideas but by the energy and passion of the activists and by the desire to tear things down and start all over again.
It is, however, the love story which made this book successful, even leading to its adaptation into a Hollywood film (Remarque was very popular in the States).  I won't say too much more about the plot - I don't want to take any of the impact away -, but it is a wonderfully moving and extremely heart-rending story which makes you reflect on life and love, and will bring a lump to the throat of the most cynical reader.  In short, a very good novel.


Let's move on now, ignoring the thirties and forties (a luxury people living at that time didn't have) and return to Germany in 1955.  Berlin is a city divided into four zones, one of which will eventually be walled off by the Russians, and it is into this early Cold War era that Leonard Marnham, a young English electrical engineer steps in Ian McEwan's novel The Innocent.  Seconded to the Americans in a joint operation, he helps engineer telephone taps to spy on the Russians across the border whilst spending his free time with Maria, a German woman he meets in a nightclub.

For Leonard, an innocent in every sense of the word, his time in Berlin is an awakening.  Quite apart from this being his first time abroad (and away from his parents), his relationship with Maria is his first real experience with the opposite sex - which shows in the way he thinks he needs to treat her.  He also has to form relationships with the Americans he is working with, including the charismatic Bob Glass, despite hints from a superior that he should, perhaps, be using them and passing information back to Whitehall.  And then, on top of all this, Maria's ex-husband turns up, and things get really complicated...

The story involves a new slant on a genuine spying operation in Berlin, introducing a real spy as a minor character in the book (so no looking things up until afterwards unless you want to spoil things!), and while it's a fairly slight work, it's thoroughly entertaining stuff.  McEwan handles the story deftly, with a few violent and sordid flourishes, but there is one aspect of the book which gives pause for thought.  The final section is set in 1987, allowing a look back at the events through the gift of hindsight, and as this is the third time he's done this in the three books of his I've read so far (this one plus Atonement and On Chesil Beach), I'm starting to wonder if he could possibly use the same technique in all his novels.  One would hope not...

That minor quibble aside, The Innocent is a pleasant read about a very interesting historical period and well worth a look (although I'm happy to have borrowed rather than bought it).  There is one more intriguing point to report though; McEwan wrote a postscript explaining some of the background information and thanking some of his sources.  Nothing there to interest one, you might think, until you see the date: September, 1989.  Timing really is everything...