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Cannonball Read 09/10 I

Discussion in 'BoM Blogs' started by Fabius Maximus, Nov 4, 2009.

  1. Fabius Maximus Gems: 19/31
    Latest gem: Aquamarine

    Feb 18, 2003
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    Book #1: German Lesson, by Siegfried Lenz

    This book was on my to-read list for a long time. I even started reading, but couldn't bring myself to finish it. Not because it's not good. In fact, it's excellent. But it is also quite complex, and I hadn't the stamina to finish it. It turns out that the Cannonball Read is a great motivator.

    German Lesson is a true German classic of post-war literature. The novel belongs to the canon of books read in schools, and gets quite a negative reputation because of that. Being forced to read something makes you hate it, it seems. I didn't read the book in school. Maybe that's why I like it so much.

    Lenz tells the childhood story of one Siegfried 'Siggi' Jepsen, a young man interred in a correctional facility for difficult youths. In other words, a prison. The year is 1954. Siggi got a three year sentence for being an art thief, which makes him an oddity among the other inmates that mostly consist of petty thieves and thugs.

    One day, he and his German class are tasked to write an essay about 'The Joys of Duty', and Siggi returns an empty sheet. But not because he is unable to come up with anything, but because he doesn't know where to start. The young man has to report to the director of the facility, where he explains his dilemma. His head swims with memories of his childhood, the strongest being of his father, a police officer. The director seemingly understands and decides that Siggi has to write the essay, no matter what. The youth gets solitary confinement until he has finished his work, a condition to which Siggi wholeheartedly agrees.

    As Siggi starts to write, the reader is brought back 11 years. Siggi is 10 years old and lives with his parents and his older sister Hilke in a small house close to the Danish frontier. Of course, the frontier doesn't really exist anymore, as the Nazis rule Germany and conquered Denmark. The father, Jens Ole Jepsen, is „Germany's northernmost police post“. Since the landscape is sparsely populated, Siggi's father is the only police officer in a radius of several kilometers. His only means of transportation consists of a bicycle.

    Siggi describes his family as harsh and cold, feelings that are caused mostly by his mother, Gudrun.seh was the one behind the ostracism of her son Klaas, who shot himself through the hand to not get shipped to the front lines of the war. His father is a bit more lenient and often takes Siggi with him on his rides around the flat and dreary landscape of the German North Sea coast.

    But Siggi has a second family. Close by lives the painter Max Ludwig Nansen, a local celebrity, with his eternal fiancee Ditte, his mentor Theo Busbeck and two orphans they took in. Nansen is a much warmer person, and Siggi often sits with him in his atelier, watching the older man paint. Sometimes, the boy models for the painter. Nansen is also friends with the policeman, whose lives he saved when they were children. All in all, Siggi's childhood is quite happy. The war and Berlin are far away, the people stay among themselves and have little contact to other regions of the country.

    But Siggi's world gets shaken up when an order arrives from Berlin. Nansen has to turn in the paintings of the last two years and is ordered to stop working. His friend, Officer Jepsen is to be responsible for enforcing the ban. It seems that Nansen was offered the leading position of the national art academy, but refused with the words that he "is allergic to the color brown".

    The two men are both bullheaded about their tasks. The painter has no intention to follow the order, and the police man is set to enforce it, no matter what, because he sees that it is his duty. Laws are to be followed, lest everything turns into chaos. He warns the painter several times, while refusing to be blamed for his actions.

    Siggi now stands between the two men. His father expects him to help, because of the boy's closeness to the painter. And Nansen trusts the boy not to rat him out. A game of hide and seek begins, in which Siggi's father develops a genuine obsession with controlling Nansen. He even forms a kind of Second Sight. The relationship between him and Nansen deteriorates until they not speak with each other anymore. And to make bad things worse, Jens Ole Jepsen does not stop after the war is over and the nazis are removed from power. Siggi is caught in the middle and has to find a way to come out of the situation more or less sane.

    Siegfried Lenz turns out to be a painter himself, only that he uses words instead of brushes and colors. While he keeps Siggi's essay as if the youth describes something from afar, the author develops whole landscapes of people, their actions and relationships, and yes, the landscape, often in combination. The dreary, grey, often rainy country resembles the mood of the persons living there. They are cold and hard, terse and bullheaded, and quite distrustful of strangers (a feeling that is only enhanced by Nazi propaganda). An example of Lenz' writing style follows:

    Lenz also uses this novel to describe how the nazis gained access even to the most remote regions of the country. It was only possible by relying on local authority figures that did their duty above anything else. I would have been easy for police office Jepsen to ignore that his friend Nansen was painting. Yet he tried to catch him at every possible chance. That phenomenon wasn't even caused by the Nazis, but existed before their twelve years in power. As much as it pained him, Jepsen is the type of person who would have enforced such a senseless order no matter who it came from.
    And while Jepsen is the most prominent example of this single-minded grasp of duty, there are others in Lenz' novel who exert the same state of mind: the teacher who continues his lesson despite the bombing of a near-by town. The pedagogues of the correctional facility who use the same philosophy, and even Siggi himself, who will not cease writing his essay until he feels that it is finished.

    Yet, Lenz lets Siggi speak out against the norm. In that, he creates the focal point of his critique of a whole generation of Germans, who served the Nazis out of a misplaced sense of duty and submission:

    As you can see, Lenz' critique is never crude, and it gets never more outspoken than that. His paintings use subtle color. In that, his words create an immense force, once you see through them. Therefore, German Lesson is not only a very well written book, but also a very important one, as many of the German officals claimed to have only done their duty when confronted with their crimes after the war.
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