In the High Peaks

Monday, July 11, 2011

Christoph Hein

I have a severe case of writer's block because I'd like to write an entry about the German writer Christoph Hein's 2008 novel, Settlement, but I feel I'll make a mess of it. The German title is Landnahme, which, despite my imprecise German language knowledge, has a much broader connotation than the English word settlement. After reading the book, I'm not at all happy with the English title. But this is nothing new for me concerning English translations of German titles.

So why do I have writer's block? My problem stems from the fact that there is so much to say about this novel and its author, and I don't want to overwhelm my readers. But I'll just plunge in. Here goes...

Bernhard Haber, the central character of the novel, and his parents were forcibly relocated to an East German town from the far eastern province of Silesia, which, due to the Big Three's (Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt) game of chess at the very end of the war in 1945, was ceded to Poland, to be under the domination of the Soviet Union. The German population in Silesia was forced to exit to the west, to East Germany, also under the control of the Soviets, and some to West Germany.

After World War II, all of Germany was inundated with German refugees from the (distant) East, and not only from Silesia. And like "foreigners," "strangers," and other supposedly despicable "Fluchtlinge," they were not welcomed anywhere they had to settle. This was the author Christoph Hein's personal history (he was born in 1944 in Silesia), and it was the story of the young Bernhard Haber and his family.

But Hein never allows Haber to tell his own story. Five native inhabitants, male and female, reveal Haber's life and the town residents' viewpoints.

This novel is compelling--I never tired of reading it, and I found it simultaneously puzzling and illuminating as I struggled to gain insight into the social dynamics of East Germany from the late 1940s through the 1980s. Extremely well-written!

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