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- German title: Landnahme
- Translated by Philip Boehm
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B+ : fairly compelling roundabout tale of small-town (East-)German lives
See our review for fuller assessment.
|Neue Zürcher Zeitung
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|World Lit. Today
No consensus, very mixed reactions and interpretations
From the Reviews:
- "Nach der Lektüre von Christoph Heins neuem Roman Landnahme, nach 350 Seiten, auf denen fünfzig Jahre deutscher Geschichte an dem ostdeutschen Städtchen Guldenberg vorüberziehen, hat das kleine, gemütlich-schreckensreiche Wörtchen Heimat wieder einmal einen anderen Klang angenommen." - Hubert Spiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "Der neue Roman von Christoph Hein, Landnahme, könnte ein Klassiker werden. Er liegt thematisch im Trend, ist formal so perfekt wie ein goldener Schnitt, und vor allem streift er die Dimension einer griechischen Tragödie. Hein erzählt nichts weniger als die Geschichte eines Racheverzichts, und deshalb -- nur deshalb -- zugleich die einer schmerzlichen, doch gelungenen Integration." - Ina Hartwig, Frankfurter Rundschau
- "Fünf Perspektiven, fünf miteinander konkurrierende Wahrheiten, die sich nicht gänzlich widersprechen, aber auch nie in eine kongruente Sicht auf ihre Figur münden. Das ist die Kunst des Christoph Hein: eine Mimikrykunst. Fünf Rollen, die ihre jeweils eigene -- sprachliche und charakterliche -- Authentizität beanspruchen. (...) Der neue Roman ist keineswegs so apolitisch, wie man auf den ersten Blick meinen könnte; Hein zeigt aber, dass die entscheidenden Prozesse in den gesellschaftlichen Mikrostrukturen wirken, gewissermassen unterirdisch, informell, als eine Art Gegenpolitik zur offiziellen" - Martin Krumbholz, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "(T)hese heavy-handed bookends aside, Hein’s intervening chapters, with their intimate portrayal of small-town German life and cares in the postwar period, are both gripping and colorful." - Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review
- "So werden fünf Jahrzehnte ostdeutscher Alltagsgeschichte aus der Perspektive kleiner Leute im Schnelldurchlauf rekapituliert, und wenn es nicht gerade um DDR-spezifische Phänomene wie die Zwangskollektivierung der Landwirtschaft oder die Aktivitäten von Fluchthelfern geht, hat der West-Leser das unangenehme Gefühl, den gleichen Mief, die nämliche Beschränktheit auch diesseits der Mauer kennen gelernt zu haben." - Kristina Maidt-Zinke, Süddeutsche Zeitung
- "Hein's marvellous eye for detail and the single-mindedness of his prose give many scenes a symbolism as well as an undeniable power and intensity, which will ensure the work a lasting validity. The complexity of the themes and the enigmatic main character make Landnahme by far Christoph Hein's best work and undoubtedly one of the most important German novels of recent years." - Andrew Williams, Times Literary Supplement
- "Alles ist da, alles ist wie immer bei Hein -- und dennoch stimmt in diesem Roman wenig zusammen. Er wirkt oberflächlich, flüchtig und lieblos zusammengeschustert. Er ist, um es gleich deutlich zu sagen, rundum missglückt, er ist die Bankrotterklärung eines routinierten Erzählers. (...) Landnahme ist ein zäher, sprachlich oft erbärmlich schwacher, einfallsloser Roman. Wer gern etwas von Christoph Hein lesen möchte, sollte lieber zu einem seiner früheren Bücher greifen. Oder einfach auf das nächste warten." - Uwe Wittstock, Die Welt
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:
The central character in Landnahme is Bernhard Haber, but the five main parts of the novel are each narrated by a different acquaintance of his from different stages of his life, and most of them -- even those that know him intimately -- do not know him well.
Though the novel covers the span of the entire second half of the twentieth century, the larger post-world War II politics in Germany only trickle down to the small city of Guldenberg, where most of the action takes place, as Hein focusses on the personal and domestic (though also clearly showing how the political effects these).
Bernhard comes to Guldenberg as a boy, after the post-war borders have begun to become firm and it is clear that the German territories east of the Oder would remain under Polish control.
The Habers came from Breslau -- but when he introduces himself at his new school one of his teachers already doesn't accept that designation, and Bernhard is made to say he comes from Wroclaw (as the city had been re-named).
Bernhard is a displaced person -- an "Umsiedler" (a resettler) -- and they aren't much liked in Guldenberg (or elsewhere), a place with little to spare after the hardships of war.
The provincial locals find it hard to embrace these other Germans: "Irgendwie kamen sie aus einem Deutschland, das nicht unser Deutschland war" ("Someohow they came from a Germany that wasn't our Germany").
Unlike other displaced persons, who would eventually return to their villages or bombed out cities, the Umsiedler were particularly unwelcome guests because they remained.
Bernhard's family's outsider status haunts him throughout his life, and remains a defining attribute.
The Habers' lot is all the worse because the father is a carpenter, but only has one arm.
Still, the family manages to somehow make do, without ever really being accepted.
Bernhard's story is told through the eyes of five acquaintances.
The first is a boy he sat next to at school for years -- but the two hardly ever talked.
The second is a girlfriend, who also never felt she really got to know him.
They recount -- from the present -- a few memories, focussing as much on their own lives as Bernhard's.
The roundabout approach eventually makes for a good picture of small-town life in this corner of (East) Germany.
There's little sense of politics in the early sections: the schoolboy-lives and teen dreams are the universal, self-centred ones, and while the circumstances (the poverty, especially, and some of the local friction) are specific to the time and place, much of what happens could happen anywhere.
Politics eventually does intrude: when the serious collectivisation efforts begin (under which farmers were forced to join collectives, and hand over their land), Bernhard plays a role, part of the supporting troupe of intimidators who go to pressure the farmers to join up.
The locals are particularly shocked that he is one of those who go to the farm of the family where the Habers were first quartered when they arrived in Guldenberg.
Bernhard isn't a grateful person, and given the circumstances he often is right not to be.
He bears grudges, and he doesn't forget: more than anything it is the injuries that he can not immediately revenge himself for that motivate him.
Several -- the brutal murder of his dog (briefly his much-loved companion, and the being he seems to care most for his entire life), arsons at his father's workshop, and, later, worse -- dominate the book, as he essentially can't let them go.
The third section is narrated by another casual acquaintance, Peter Koller, overlapping some with the previous section, and covering Bernhard's final schoolyears and then a few years later.
Koller describes some petty deceit and crimes the youths were both involved in; camouflaged by the political turbulence of the times they manage to get others (seriously) into trouble without suffering themselves; Koller has some qualms about the turn of events, but Bernhard doesn't.
(He never does, it seems.)
After school, they lose touch, and Koller manages to get himself on track for a promising future, but he hooks up with the wrong woman: she bears him a son whose father is obviously black (which Koller isn't), and he gives up on his life and eventually has the bad luck to cross paths with Bernhard again.
Bernhard is involved in the (illegal) business of transporting people to West Berlin.
Koller joins in, makes good money, and, of course, eventually gets nabbed; Bernhard is much luckier.
Bernhard has a good deal of money tucked away by the mid-60s.
Instead of starting a new life anywhere he pleases, he returns to Guldenberg -- and sets up a carpentry business, investing in the best machines, sharp and driven enough to make a success of it.
He adapts to changing times too: a late push at nationalization takes some control of his very successful undertaking away from him, but he manages to stay at the helm.
Eventually the Berlin Wall comes down, the regime falls: Bernhard gets back what was his, and continues his successful ways, unfettered now by any socialist restraints.
Landnahme -- "Land-taking" -- is about the literal appropriation of home: the taking of the Habers' native Breslau (by Poland), the East German policy of collectivization, of farms and property, and, in its final manifestation, the assimilation of East Germany into West after 1990, all of which greatly affect the life of the central character.
But the title also refers to Bernhard's appropriation of land, his creating a new home (a new Heimat), his making the place his own -- with a vengeance.
A displaced person, Bernhard ultimately did not allow himself to be budged: despite all the local hostility and the possibility of settling elsewhere, he made Guldenberg his own.
Bernhard is an odd and not particularly likable character.
He does some nasty things, isn't very sociable, and is hard to read.
Even those who tell the story remain puzzled by him.
He marries -- the fourth section of the novel is narrated by the sister of his wife -- and has some friends, but, until the very end, he hardly ever opens up about anything at all.
The success of the book lies in the five different narratives, as each of these people whose lives were touched by Bernhard in one way or another recount their stories.
The emphasis is on their stories: Bernhard is the link, and often central to at least some of the episodes they relate, but it's their lives they reflect upon.
They look back from the present, occasionally wistful, considering mistakes made, but also seeing dreams fulfilled or finding satisfaction in how things have turned out.
They are a varied bunch, the whole array of small-town folk with youthful dreams (they are all around the same age as Bernhard and -- except the last -- the narratives focus on their childhood and young-adult lives) and the expected mix of adult disappointments and successes.
Sections are impressive, and overall it's a very good collection of slices of small-town East German life, from post-war to reunification, welcome especially because of its subtle handling of the political.
The whole doesn't convince entirely.
The connexions are somewhat arbitrary (though, often as not, cleverly done), and a few bits -- such as the underlying murder-mystery (or mysteries) of sorts -- not adequately developed.
The acceleration -- the book moves very slowly through the 1950s and 60s, and then zooms through the remainder of the century -- is also a bit disappointing.
As is the fact that Bernhard remains such a cipher.
A worthwhile, if occasionally somewhat puzzling read, solidly presented -- and with a few very fine parts.
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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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© 2004-2008 the complete review
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