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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

In seiner frühen Kindheit ein Garten

Christoph Hein

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To purchase In seiner frühen Kindheit ein Garten

Title: In seiner frühen Kindheit ein Garten
Author: Christoph Hein
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005
Length: 271 pages
Original in: German
Availability: In seiner frühen Kindheit ein Garten - Deutschland
  • In seiner frühen Kindheit ein Garten has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B : sincere but wooden

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ F 4/2/2005 Hubert Spiegel
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 1/2/2005 Roman Bucheli
Die Welt A 19/1/2005 Uwe Wittstock
Die Zeit F 3/2/2005 Jens Jessen

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, though all agree the writing is workmanlike, at best.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Nicht der Thriller, der in dem Stoff auch steckt, interessiert Hein, sondern das Drama um Recht, Gerechtigkeit und Staatsräson. (...) Hier wird so bieder und betulich, so umständlich und eintönig erzählt, daß man trübsinnig darüber werden könnte. Aus jedem zweiten Satz rieselt Hoffmanns Gardinenstärke. Statt realistischer Detailgenauigkeit herrscht lebloser Pseudorealismus. Schlimm genug, aber überdies ist dieses Buch erstaunlich nachlässig geschrieben." - Hubert Spiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Und wie Böll geht es auch Hein mit seinem Roman nicht in erster Linie darum, ein brillantes Sprachkunstwerk abzuliefern, sondern eine spannende, die Bürger aufstörende politische Geschichte über unsere Gegenwart zu erzählen. Und das gelingt ihm auch. Dieses Buch hat mich eine schlaflose Nacht gekostet, nachdem ich mit dem Lesen begonnen hatte, konnte ich es vor dem letzten Satz nicht zuschlagen." - Uwe Wittstock, Die Welt

  • "Es gibt keine ästhetischen Anstrengungen, die irgendwo, auf irgendeiner Seite oder in irgendeiner kleinen Metapher etwa auf Kunst zielten, also auf etwas, das die unmittelbar ideologisch-politische Botschaft überstiege. Überall wird mit der größten dramaturgischen, oft sogar grammatikalischen Sorglosigkeit erzählt, bis hin zum offenen Desinteresse an Erzähltechnik und Sprachgestalt. (...) Das Buch will kein Roman sein, sondern ein frommes Traktätchen." - Jens Jessen, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In seiner frühen Kindheit ein Garten is closely based on actual events, taking the 1993 death of suspected Baader-Meinhof terrorist group member Wolfgang Grams in a botched police-action in Bad Kleinen as the focal point of the novel. The names have been changed -- Grams is now Oliver Zurek, Birgit Hogefeld is Katharina Blumenschläger (a very obvious nod to Heinrich Böll's Katharina Blum) -- but otherwise, at least in describing the events directly to do with the terrorists, Hein sticks very close to the facts.
       Hein revisits it from the perspective of the parents of Zurek. The book begins some five years after their son died but soon turns back and then moves chronologically from that time through the present. The case is a still-notorious one in Germany, and in describing the Zureks' efforts to get some justice -- or simply some answers -- Hein paints a damning picture of the authorities involved in the case.
       Oliver Zurek died of a gunshot wound -- one of several he sustained. He was accused of having shot a police officer in the mêlée and then that he had committed suicide. Several contradictory official findings were released in short order, those suggesting that he could not have shot himself (but rather was shot, execution style, at close range) not finding favour with the authorities. Police testimony was largely self-serving and widely considered dubious but given credence over consistent bystander testimony that painted a totally different picture. A video of the police action (made by the police department; it was an elaborate operation) mysteriously disappeared, and when it reappeared had obviously been tampered with and was missing the relevant footage. Heads did roll -- including a minister's (American readers will surely be baffled by the idea that a high-level government official might actually be held accountable for low-level failure and incompetence, as American officials never seem to take responsibility of any sort for what happens under their charge) -- but the obvious cover-up was left intact, Zurek painted and judged to be a murderer who had died at his own hand.
       Oliver's father, Richard, was a teacher and then school principal, and he and his wife are hit hard by their son's death. It did not come as a complete surprise -- he had been arrested and incarcerated previously (on a charge that was eventually dropped -- but enough of which stuck to get him labelled as a terrorist), and he had gone underground after that. It is almost immediately clear that the official explanations of their son's death are first questionable and then fabrications, and the novel follows their attempt to get at the truth. A sympathetic lawyer helps, but the state sticks to the obviously false story, discounting all the evidence to the contrary.
       In seiner frühen Kindheit ein Garten describes the struggle of an aging couple trying to make sense of their son's death and dealing with the reactions to it. Hounded by the press, who change their opinions pretty much whichever way the wind blows and then ultimately ignore the story, and widely recognised as the terrorist's parents they isolate themselves, focussed only on their day-to-day lives and on trying to see justice done. It is not Oliver's innocence they necessarily want to prove, but they want a fair hearing for him, and it is clear that he never got that. (One way of dealing with it, especially for the mother, is to befriend the jailed Katharina, who they choose to regard as Oliver's common-law wife, first writing and then visiting her.)
       Much is made by Hein of the loyalty oath - a legally binding pledge of allegiance -- that Richard (and also his daughter) have sworn (as teachers in Germany are required to). The oath means a great deal to Richard (and his daughter), as does a belief in the state, but these events shake Richard's faith. In an argument with his daughter (who is unwavering in her belief that the state is right, no matter what it does) he gets to the gist of the matter:

Sie lügen und lügen und lügen,und sie reden sich warscheinlich ein, dass sie das tun, um die Demokratie zu retten. Doch damit zerstören sie, was die Demokratie begründet: das Vertrauen, ohne das eine Gemeinschaft nicht lebensfähig ist.

(They lie and they lie and they lie, and they probably tell themselves that they're doing it in order to save democracy. But by doing it they are destroying that on which democracy is based: the trust, without which a community can't live.)
       Not surprisingly, the novel culminates in Richard's public renunciation of the loyalty oath -- decent drama, but a bit simplistic, as is much of the novel.
       At its best, In seiner frühen Kindheit ein Garten explores the grief of parents who have lost a son and suffered an injustice. The small domestic scenes are good, if a bit plodding -- though when the two remaining Zurek-children come into the picture it becomes a bit programmatic (the children represent positions, rather than being real-life characters). The title of the book comes from a memory of Oliver, who as a child thought that if one planted something in the earth it would grow and multiply, and so to make his beloved sister happy he buried her favourite doll in the backyard, expecting a hundred to rise from the earth (the predictable results were, of course, quite different), and throughout Oliver is nicely present as a distant, somewhat vague and mysterious memory.
       The efforts to get justice -- the trials and Richard's other efforts -- are also quite interesting. The limited perspective -- it is only the parents' perspective that is recounted -- isn't bad -- after all, it is a story (from Oliver's actual and supposed crimes to the state's mysterious workings) that in its entirety is unknowable. But Hein tries too hard in several of the confrontations, and it takes some of the emotional power from the story, leaving a slightly hollow ring.
       The choice of subject matter is interesting: the East German writer Hein has tackled a story that took place in unified Germany, but where the specific (terrorist) problem and response are historically considered former-West German ones. Bad Kleinen was one of the last significant state-RAF confrontations, but the handling echoes much of what happened in the late 1970s with the original Baader-Meinhof members, the state using its overwhelming force to insist on its version of events without revealing all the facts. The old East German regime -- and many others, of course -- was similarly (and much more frequently and forcefully) less than forthright with its citizenry, but Hein's choice of events is clearly meant as challenge to the avowedly but not always convincingly democratic regimes of the present.
       (Several of the German reviews of this book suggest that the choice of subject matter was made by Hein in order to reassure his East German compatriots that West Germany was not morally superior and also capable of outrageous treatment of its citizens. Since Hein specifically chose an event from unified German times (1993 and after), not the good old days of the Federal Republic (from which he could have also chosen any number of similar episodes) this seems entirely unconvincing.)
       For British and American readers it reminds of nothing so much as the way their governments have handled Iraq -- indeed, the excuses for going to war, all based on flimsy and unsubstantiated evidence (if one can even call it evidence), the story changing week after week as new facts are revealed and suppressed, seems exactly like what happened after the use of overwhelming force against the terrorists in Bad Kleinen. It was perhaps not his intention, but In seiner frühen Kindheit ein Garten is a surprisingly effective indictment of the aggression by the United States and its allies in Iraq. (Since Germany never tried to spread this disinformation amongst its citizenry in order to enlist support for military action against Iraq it seems unlikely Hein had this in mind -- at least first and foremost -- but it is striking how close the analogy is.)
       In seiner frühen Kindheit ein Garten is an odd novel. It is gripping, after a fashion, and thought-provoking, but many parts are too obviously formulaic and pedestrian, arguments couched in conversation and action that show little artistry. One expects more from Hein (or any novelist).
       Still: a worthwhile read, with considerable (often unexpected) resonance.

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In seiner frühen Kindheit ein Garten: Reviews: Wolfgang Grams: Christoph Hein: Other books by Christoph Hein under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       (East) German author Christoph Hein was born in 1944. He has written several acclaimed novels and numerous plays.

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© 2005-2008 the complete review

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