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- German title: Der Turm
- Tales from a Lost Country
- Translated by Mike Mitchell
- German Book Prize, 2008
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B+ : rich, elaborate portrait of the GDR in the 1980s that sags a bit under its own weight
See our review for fuller assessment.
Likely the definitive novel of the last decade of the German Democratic Republic
From the Reviews:
- "Die drei Protagonisten, deren Weg Tellkamp in den letzten DDR-Jahren verfolgt, sind einem dabei nicht unbedingt sympathisch. Aber gerade das macht den Roman überhaupt so interessant. Denn Tellkamp seziert diesmal. Er stellt dar, was in einer Zeit des lähmenden Stillstands, des Redeverbots, Systemdiktats und der Bespitzelung mit Menschen passiert" - Andreas Platthaus, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "So ist Der Turm nicht nur ein episch angelegter Familienroman, sondern auch ein fein gearbeiteter, genau erinnerter und recherchierter Geschichtsroman, der sich an der Wirklichkeit entlangarbeitet. (...) Es ist ein Buch für Insider, Erinnernde, die selbst dabei waren, wie es auch ein Buch für die Nach- und Nebenwelt ist, die Nacherlebenden, für die dieser Teil der Geschichte immer etwas Erzähltes und nur von außen Betrachtbares bleiben wird. Tellkamp hat der deutschen Literatur frei von Bitterkeit und Ressentiments einen Erfahrungsschatz schriftlich gesichert, der unbedingt erzählenswert war, nicht zuletzt deshalb, weil er uns sonst möglicherweise unmerklich wieder entglitten wäre." - Sabine Franke, Frankfurter Rundschau
- "Bereits der Eintritt in den Roman, dessen dramatischer Gestus stark an Alfred Döblin erinnert, ist wie der Tauchgang in eine von chemischen Trübungen verdunkelte Unterwassertopografie, in der man lesend nach Luft ringt, ein endzeitliches Panorama, aus dem sich nach und nach einzelne helle Gestalten lösen. (...) Uwe Tellkamp brauchte immerhin nur 976 Seiten für den Epochenbruch von 1989. So gesehen ist Der Turm, diese grosse Tragikomödie eines irregeleiteten Landes, ein verspäteter, ein nachgeholter Vatermord." - Beatrix Langner, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "In Mike Mitchell’s English, Tellkamp’s prose is polished, vivid and observationally acute. (...) But to accuse Tellkamp of prolixity would be to miss the point of a novel that marshals all its resources against the weakness of memory." - Anthony Cummins, The Telegraph
- "Der Turm is a novel that overflows and overpowers: it is rendered in sentences as baroque as the old Dresden Tellkamp’s characters long for. Memories and impressions grow wild across the lattice of the plot, bringing the symphonic book to -- but never over -- the brink of cacophony." - Jane Yager, Times Literary Supplement
- "Die Palette seiner sprachlichen Möglichkeiten ist so vielfarbig, wie die kaum eines anderen deutschen Gegenwartsautors. Und mindestens so atemberaubend ist die strukturelle Vielgestaltigkeit der Szenen." - Elmar Krekeler, Die Welt
- "Eine von den Zeitläuften losgelöste Kulturversunkenheit als Widerstand gegen die Zumutungen des DDR-Sozialismus -- der Roman zeigt, wie diese Haltung zuerst gegen die DDR und dann auch mit der DDR untergeht. Literaturbeflissene Leser ahnen: Das ist der Buddenbrooks-Komplex. (...) Uwe Tellkamps Roman endet bei ausgedruckten 975 Seiten. Der lange Atem ist Programm. (...) Dieses Buch ist ein Monstrum, und es will ein Monstrum sein. Natürlich hätten es keineswegs tausend Seiten sein müssen. Einige Kapitel wirken überflüssig, und manche scheinen einfach aus früheren Skizzenbüchern des Autors integriert worden zu sein. (..) Der Turm ist eine gewaltige Kraftanstrengung, ein abschließender Blick auf die DDR, der groß angelegte Selbstvergewisserungsversuch eines bedeutenden Autors." - Helmut Böttiger, 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:
Der Turm is set in Dresden, in the East Germany of the 1980s, then still the German Democratic Republic.
The book covers the period right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, though it moves at varying speeds across these years, lingering over particular episodes and stretches, then leaping over longer periods.
The 'Turm' (tower) of the title refers to a district of Dresden where most of the characters live.
Not quite an island of intellectual escape, it is certainly far from representative of the workers' state.
A central figure is Christian Hoffmann, a figure with some resemblance to the author, still in high school when the book begins, but eager to study medicine.
His father, Richard, is a doctor, while his uncle (on his mother's side) is Meno Rohde, an editor at a publishing house specializing in fine editions.
The arc of Christian's life is the central if not completely dominant one in the book.
Political sensitivity is still very high, allegiance -- at least nominal -- to the party and nation essential if one is to have any hope of, for example, a university-spot, especially in a field such as medicine.
Even minor high school outbursts and missteps can have grave consequences, and Christian barely scrapes by in this regard, his future hanging in the balance over such matters as being found with a Nazi book.
Inescapable, too, is military service, which Christian embarks on before he is to begin university -- and here conditions and demands do crush him, preventing him from pursuing his dreams.
He is not the only one who, by trying to maintain some personal integrity, is ruthlessly marginalized in a system that tolerates nothing that could be considered in any way subversive.
The book begins with a lengthy description of the to-do around Richard's fiftieth birthday, and his situation suggests the possibility of getting by fairly comfortably in this society, as he has found considerable success and enjoys a few privileges.
Yet he's also mired in an awkward affair that has no hopes of working out well, with gossip starting to reach his wife and the woman in question reacting poorly to their situation.
Richard's half-hearted attempts to do the right thing don't work out particularly well.
And while the doctors are held in considerable esteem, bureaucracy and the difficulties in getting supplies or necessary funds show the shortcomings of the socialist system in this area as well
Meno is part of the local literary establishment -- based here closely on the actual local scene at the time, with a number of the writers only thinly disguised.
His meetings at the local Writers' Union and his interaction with various figures make for a good overview of the difficulties faced by authors and publishers, and the compromises that were expected.
The discussions get very frank, even as the amount of leeway the censor permits is limited.
Meno is working on a lyrical work of his own, but it is the fate of an author he is drawn to and tries to take a bit under his wing, the very talented young Judith Schevola, that Tellkamp focusses on.
Like Christian, she -- another promising member of the younger generation -- suffers most under the crushing weight of the regime and its demands.
Tellkamp offers a vast survey of East German life, even as he keeps it within relatively limited areas: school, the workplace (the hospital and the publishing house), army life.
For the most part, those whose lives are described are fairly well-to-do -- if not financially particularly well-off, at least relatively secure in their places, and certainly comfortable (even as that occasionally proves illusory).
True, occasionally strangers are assigned a portion of their living spaces, as lines are redrawn in the houses and officialdom literally encroaches on their lives further, but most can get by relatively comfortably.
Tellkamp does, however, pointedly describe the lives of the truly privileged, the nation's favoured sons, which some of the others catch a glimpse of -- an entirely different world.
The official party line is the one thing that is sacred, as those who oppose it suffer Draconian punishments.
Doubts about anyone being a good citizen -- defined largely on the basis of unquestioning support for the Soviet position -- can be devastating, while taking the step of filing an application to leave the country means burning all one's bridges in one quick and massive blaze.
There is a great deal of period-detail here, such as the lines at shops that people get on even if it's unclear what will be on offer (the thinking being that any special delivery is worth getting one's hands on), or the amount of time involved in dealing with even the smallest bit of bureaucracy.
It's not just far from a loving portrait, however: there's no Ostalgie (nostalgia for the old Eastern ways) here at all and, if anything, Tellkamp's version is almost too consistently sour.
Christian is a self-conscious, acne-suffering teenager with incredible ambition and drive at the beginning of the book.
He plows through books at a ridiculous pace, and barely seems to enjoy any leisure time, but there's also no sheer love of learning (or reading) here.
It's all ambition -- and his choice of medicine as a field is also not fueled by his interest in helping others but simply because he wants fame and adulation.
It's hard not to see Tellkamp in Christian, and it's hard not to see this book as the result of an only slightly more controlled ambition.
"Mit 500 Seiten begannen die wirklichen Romane " ('Real novels started with at least 500 pages') Christian convinces himself, as if weight could equal worth, and there's little doubt that Tellkamp hasn't completely shaken that notion.
At nearly a thousand pages Der Turm is well in the upper reaches of Thomas Mann territory, and there are points -- even stretches -- where one has to wonder why he didn't show more restraint.
Der Turm is not a smooth-flowing narrative: the many, relatively short chapters may be Mann-like, but the overall result is a very different one.
Certain chapters are true asides, excursions elsewhere, while others do follow a course of action in sequence.
Tellkamp begins his book with a brief 'Overture' and closes it with a 'Finale' -- and music does play a small role in some of the characters' lives -- and there is something of a musical composition to the novel.
Especially in those parts and passages that allow one or another instrument to show off a bit: Tellkamp has the writing chops and can't help but introduce a few flourishes -- but that doesn't always work to best effect.
One of the writers notes:
"Wahrheit ! Als ob es in der Literatur um Wahrheit ging !
Romane sind keine Philosophieseminare.
Romane lügen immer."
The argument doesn't go unchallenged, but despite all the talk Der Turm is as much documentary as philosophical, trying to get at truth less through analysis (though there is also some of that) than through precise depiction.
And it is the scenes and dialogues that re-present everyday East German life where Tellkamp excels, these fully realised confrontations and unfolding of events -- suggesting that, because this is how it was (and it often feels he got that precisely right), that's also all there is to it -- a more dubious proposition.
["Truth ! As if literature had anything to do with the truth !
Novels aren't philosophy-seminars.
Novels always lie."
The many characters and storylines allow for a truly panoramic view of 1980s East Germany, yet with the book so heavily populated and moving in all these different directions the picture loses focus too.
In part, that's also because it is not a true family saga, Christian's story too dominant yet not the whole story either.
Yes, in many respects Der Turm is a glorious epic of that sad last decade of East German history, with some remarkable patches of writing and some very fine scenes.
Yet it feels incomplete as a history, the pendulum swinging too far and spitefully back in a book that drips with contempt and feels too personal in its reckoning with an entire nation and system.
An important book, and certainly an impressive accomplishment; a good but not a great novel.
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Der Turm - the TV series:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of German literature
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About the Author:
German author Uwe Tellkamp was born in Dresden in 1968.
He is also a doctor.
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© 2008-2021 the complete review
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