Just to square it with you: this review is not strictly a review. I own up: I haven’t read the book – yet. At least, this makes me more honest than a great many literary critics who review for national papers and magazines – without actually reading the reviewed book. On the other hand: I met the author.
Earlier this week, I went to a book presentation and “meet the author event” at an Austrian embassy. There, author Constantin Göttfert was interviewed about and read from his latest novel. This German novel, “Steiners Geschichte” (Steiner’s story), was published about three months ago. As far as I know, it is not yet available in English. If that’s no problem for you: buy the German version asap!
The story opens with a young couple who are expecting a baby. Her grandfather, Steiner, has recently died. The relationship between the young man, who tells most of the story, and Steiner’s granddaughter is also not going well.
These circumstances trigger a fascination with the family’s history, roots, secrets, traumas. Steiner’s family to be more precise. Both young people want to understand, to find out, what caused Steiner to become Steiner; what caused his family to become so dysfunctional. So one of the novel’s themes is how family traumas influence generations, till a generation comes along and tries to end their effects.
What makes the discovery tour extra fascinating and traumatic is, that this family’s history is linked to and influenced by world events and world history. Their effects upon this family were crushing. For Steiner and his family belong to German people who settled in the middle of Europe well before and during the Habsburg Empire. They belong to the people who now call themselves Karpaten Deutscher. (See: Carpatian Germans.)
Like many Eastern Europeans, this people had to flee their country during the aftermath of WWII. Nationalism, communism, the cold war, ensured that Steiner’s family was unable to return to its roots, its home, its country.
Like other past and present refugees, Steiner and his family had to rebuild their lives in a country where they were less than welcome – and where they actually didn’t want to be. So a few other themes are what exactly is nationality, family, home, identity. What is the role of language, traditions, customs.
Of course, these and other themes were discussed during the interview with the author and after each excerpt he read from this novel. It was fascinating to witness the interviewer having problems with certain characters or scenes, which the author – who has Carpatien German ties – of course had not.
Perhaps even more fascinating were reactions from the audience. There were people present, whose families were also traumatized by WWII and its aftermath, as well as expats. Quite a few had no problem with the descriptions of the fictional Steiner family and its weird behaviour caused by traumas.
At the end of this novel, there is some kind of liberation or redemption. But it does not have a traditional happy end. This is perhaps more realistic in a novel which deals with truly difficult themes and historic traumas.
Despite the lack of a traditional happy end, this multi-layer novel, which can be read in so many ways and offers so much to think about, is an extremely good read. Even the few excerpts read by its author, managed to whet my appetite to read it asap. The few in the audience who had read it, unanimously said it was un-put-down-able. So if you can’t read German, it is to be hoped an English translation will become available fast.
“Steiners Geschichte”, Constantin Göttfert, C.H. Beck, pp 480, about 20 Euro, published 2014. German version and German E-book version available through Amazon.