The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional weekends.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.

Entries in Germany (10)


The Club by Takis Würger 

First published in Germany in 2017; published in translation by Grove Atlantic on March 12, 2019

The Club is a story of privilege and of how the privileged come to believe that society’s rules do not apply to them. It might seem over-the-top if not for recent revelations about Swarthmore fraternities that used date-rape drugs and maintained a “rape attic.” The Club is also about the malleable nature of truth, “the stories we keep telling ourselves until we believe they’re the truth.”

The Club is told in the first person from the perspectives of several characters. The primary character is Hans. He was picked on when he was a kid, so his father took him to the gym for boxing lessons. Learning to fight taught him to tolerate other people.

Hans becomes an orphan shortly after the novel begins. Some of the story is narrated by Hans’ Aunt Alex from England, who becomes Hans’ guardian. Alex teaches art history at Cambridge. She considers herself mad, so she sends Hans to a Jesuit boarding school in Germany rather than dragging him into her abyss. Hans studies, works on his boxing with a monk, and tries to ignore his loneliness.

After a time, Alex invites Hans to become a student at Cambridge and to join the Pitt Club. The club is not dedicated to the admiration of Brad Pitt, but consists of a group of privileged students, some of whom box. Alex wants Hans to infiltrate the club and help her find out who committed a crime, the nature of which she refuses to identify. To that end, Alex meets a mysterious woman (a grad student of Alex’s) named Charlotte. Her father is Alex’s ticket to an invitation to join the Pitt Club.

The wealthy, upper-class students who belong to the Pitt Club are instantly unlikeable. One of those, Josh, occasionally narrates a section. He thinks of himself as a decent chap and has no clue what a prick he is, oblivious to the impact on others of his elitist attitude and his inability to manage his anger.

Charlotte’s wealthy father, Angus Farewell, also narrates some sections. Peter Wong, a foreign student who wants to join the Pitt Club, is one of the more interesting narrators, if only because he keeps a daily log of (among other things) his masturbation.

A couple of the characters are a bit clichéd — the gay victim of homophobia, the American who emphasizes his patriotism and his Christianity (which is apparently the way British writers see all Americans) — and the story has a contrived feel, relying on one coincidence too many. As an indictment of the sense of empowerment that comes naturally to the privileged, however, the story also feels real. Some of that reality comes from details that Takis Würger no doubt gleaned from his own brief membership in the Pitt Club.

The story moves at a steady pace. Its ending is easy to foresee, but the ending is satisfying. The novel might be faulted for simplifying complex social issues surrounding privilege and women’s rights, but Würger’s heart is in the right place and the story is timely.



To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann

Published in Germany in 2015; published in translation by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on August 29, 2017

On his deathbed, Walter’s mind returns to the war. Walter was a dairy farmer, just turning 18 and working for the Reich Food Estate thanks to his inability to shoot straight during his term in the Hitler Youth Corps. Unfortunately for Walter, the war is nearing an end and Hitler needs bodies to move forward and die, followed by more bodies who move forward and die, so Walter is drafted and sent to Hungary, where the Waffen SS is trying to stop the Russian advance. But because he has a driver’s license, Walter ferries supplies rather than fighting at the front. He fires only one shot during the war, but it is a shot he will never forget.

After Walter has a moment of heroism, he is rewarded with the opportunity to search for his cruel father’s grave. That quest takes him even closer to the Russian front, where the consequences of war are stark. Hopelessness pervades the novel. Civilians lose their homes and towns, deserters flee the front only to face execution. The Germans are fighting “a war for cynics, who don’t believe in anything but might makes right” — the same thinking that starts every war. The war pits enemy against enemy but also friend against friend when Walter is ordered to be “stronger than your own scruples.”

The horrors of war are seen from the perspective of soldiers fighting and dying for the losing side. Some of those horrors are inflicted by the soldiers, following orders from officers, on civilians suspected of being partisan, or just to satisfy their blood lust. And some horrors are inflicted on soldiers by their own officers, as the story illustrates in its most dramatic moment. Walter comes of age with an act that no teenager (or adult) should be forced to undertake, and then swallows that moment, concealing it deep within his being for the rest of his life — a fact that is revealed in the opening pages and again, indirectly, through song lyrics that Walter's son recounts in an epilog.

One of the story’s themes is that life moves on, even as individual lives end. Walter believes there will always be a need for milkers, but learns at the war’s end that he will soon be displaced by machines, his three years of training leading only to personal obsolescence. But change is inevitable and the brief time that Walter serves in the war brings about many changes in his life and country. Some of those changes he will live with until he dies, will make him welcome his own eventual death.

To Die in Spring is written (or translated) in smooth prose with no wasted words. It tells a small story at the end of a big war, developing the central character in depth and providing enough context in the atmosphere of war and supporting characters to make the story both convincing and compelling. To Die in Spring isn’t quite as atmospheric as All Quiet on the Western Front, but it conveys similar truths about war's impact on soldiers with nearly the same power.



Agnes by Peter Stamm

First published in German in 1998; first published in translation in the UK in 2000; published by Other Press on October 25, 2016

Agnes is narrated by a man whose name we never learn. The narrator is in the Chicago Public Library, researching a book about luxury trains, when he meets Agnes. They begin a daily ritual of hanging out together. Later, over dinner, Agnes starts to share her dislikes (eating) and phobias (death). After they begin sleeping together, Agnes shares some details of her antisocial past.

Agnes wants the narrator to write a story about her so that she’ll know what he thinks of her. The narrator complies, at first chronicling their past, but eventually writing about events that have not yet happened. Agnes dutifully fulfills the role that the book ascribes to her.

Of course, life can’t be scripted, which may be Peter Stamm’s point. Life follows a course we can’t predict and things do not always work out the way we plan. Rewriting a life isn’t as easy as rewriting a story.

Eventually, however, the narrator appears to be writing the life he would prefer rather than the life he’s living. I suppose we all do that, in a way, imaging a life that is different from the one we live, even if we don’t write down our imaginings. But again, writing an imagined life rather than living a real one may not be the best route to happiness.

The bleak ending is telegraphed at the novel’s beginning. Readers looking for a warm and fuzzy reading experience should stay far away from Stamm.

The characters in the last Stamm novel I read (Seven Years) were so self-absorbed that I didn’t enjoy reading about them. This novel (Stamm’s first) is better. The two characters are self-absorbed but the story is told in such an interesting way that my detachment from the characters didn’t bother me. The stark novel is a quick read — the story is deceptively simple — but it should be read slowly and with some care to give the mind time to unpeel its layers.



A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

First published in Germany in 2014; published in translation by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on September 13, 2016

“Death is the Cold Lady,” says Horned Hannes as Andreas Egger carries him on his back from the goatherd he was tending. Hannes was near death when Egger found him, but on the way to the village, Hannes suddenly separates himself from Egger and begins to run back up the mountain. “Stop, you stupid fool!” Egger calls. “No one has ever outrun death.”

That scene begins A Whole Life. As the title suggests, the novel is the story of Egger’s life. It is not an easy life. Egger encounters death, and nearly meets his own, more than once. He lives on a mountain that is prone to avalanches. He works for a cable car company, risking his life while dangling in the air to keep the cables clean and oiled. In 1942, he goes to war, having been conscripted by the Wehrmacht. In the Caucasus and as a POW, he observes more death. Later his abusive step-father, in a chance encounter after years of separation, reminds him that “Death misses no one.” A funeral procession interrupts when he wants to enjoy a child’s laughter. When he meets a couple who are lost in the mountains, the husband was preparing to “lay down and die.” And so on.

Despite all the imagery of death, Robert Seethaler reminds us that other images can be life-affirming. Andreas doesn’t have a television but two televised events stand out in his memory -- seeing Grace Kelly waving to reporters and watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Some images spark a sense of awe that can never set aside.

Egger’s life is a series of transitions, from job to career, war to peace, husband to widower. A Whole Life is not so much the story of a man who is struggling to find himself as it is the story of a man who stumbles forward, taking what comes his way. It is the story of a solitary life, for as Egger tells a tourist, “Every one of us limps alone.” Where other novels celebrate the importance of love and friendship, A Whole Life celebrates solitude. Joy, for Egger, does not come from social interaction; it comes from being alive.

Perhaps Egger is deluding himself when he extols his pleasure in being left alone. Perhaps Egger saw so much of death that he feared forming attachments with friends and lovers who would inevitably die. Those are questions for each reader to decide. Arguably of greater importance is that Egger lived a simple life, did not succumb to temptation, caused no harm, never had a reason to experience guilt, and felt no regret. Perhaps being able to look at the mystery of life “with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement” is enough to make a life whole. I admire A Whole Life for its refreshing and unexpected perspective.



The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango

Published in Germany in 2014; published in translation by Atria Books on June 23, 2015

Henry Hayden engages in "sporadic acts of goodness" that he regards "as mere interruptions to human wickedness, and that inescapably lead to punishment." He is driven to destroy the things he loves, but only those things, and not entirely without regret. His complexity is the best thing about The Truth and Other Lies.

For the first quarter of the novel, I wasn't sure what kind of story I was reading. Then, in a pivotal and quite unexpected scene, it became clear why this is billed as a crime novel. The crime initially seems to be one of impulse but also one of mistake -- a crime gone wrong. Later, with about a quarter of the novel remaining, the story's true nature comes into focus. The Truth and Other Lies is less a crime novel and more a slow unveiling of a criminal.

But what kind of criminal is Henry? Known to the world as a bestselling author, Henry has been having a longstanding affair with Betty, his editor. Henry has kept the affair a secret from his wife, Martha, although Betty's pregnancy is making secrecy a problem. Henry has also kept a secret from Betty that is known only to Martha. Henry's trouble's mount as the story progresses but Henry tends to shape his own fate, so it isn't surprising that (as he observes late in the novel) fate is inevitably kind to him.

Henry has a secretive past in which he made an enemy, although Henry is oblivious to the enemy's existence for most of the novel. That character, like others in The Truth and Other Lies, is dangled before the reader in a tantalizing tease, then disappears as the story's focus returns to Henry. Seemingly forgotten characters return at key moments as the plot follows its carefully charted course. The mystery of Henry's past begins to play a critical role about midway through the story.

While The Truth and Other Lies is an engaging crime story, it is also a well-crafted psychological portrait of a self-centered man who suffers from a lack of empathy. Is he a psychopath or merely an opportunist? Does he have no conscience or does he simply lack impulse control? Is he detached from reality? What forces have shaped him? The police detective who hunts Henry wants to learn the truth about him but that, according to Henry, is the detective's fundamental mistake. "There's no truth in me," Henry says. "The truth has been eaten up by the fish, the truth has been burnt up in the furnace, the truth is ashes."

It is just as difficult for the reader to know Henry as it is for the detective. That isn't surprising because Henry has concealed his true self from everyone, just as Sascha Arango hides it from the reader. "We have to love Henry without knowing him" laments one of the women in Henry's life. No reader will love Henry but his complexity makes him a fascinating protagonist.

The story is good, if less interesting than Henry. It generates suspense but this isn't "edge of my seat" reading. Arango's prose is fluid, the ending is clever, and the entire novel is infused with dark wry wit.