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In The Woman on the Stairs, Bernhard Schlink’s last novel published in English, a character proclaims, “Tragedies and comedies, happiness and unhappiness, love and hate, joy and sorrow – history has it all.” The German author’s best books encompass these elements and more. The trajectory of individual lives is history in his possession, told by the catastrophes and upheavals of the 20th century. Schlink brings his legal experience to bear along the way, exploring ethical questions, crises of conscience, remorse and guilt.
The new novel by Schlink, Olga, continues this tradition and does not disappoint, on the whole. Starting with the impoverished roots of the main character and her journey through tumultuous years, one might assume this is a normal, streamlined cradle-to-grave epic. But the book consists of more than one story and unfolds from various viewpoints and different narrative types – expertly translated by Charlotte Collins. This makes it a convincing experience for reading.
An early taste of abandonment and rootlessness is offered to Olga. When her parents die of typhoid fever, she is taken from the big city and raised in a small village in rural Pomerania by her unkind grandmother. Unable to fit in, in Herbert, a loner and local aristocrat, Olga finds unity. She sees his militaristic and nationalistic Prussian values history and falls in love with him – his determination to “make Germany great” even though “it forced him to be cruel to himself and to others”
But soon the two are pulled in opposite directions. In German Southwest Africa, Herbert volunteers for colonial forces and, with his compatriots, takes violent action against unruly natives. Olga continues her schooling to secure a position at the college for teacher training, but when she is moved to a backwater in East Prussia at the behest of Herbert’s disapproving sister, Viktoria, her hopes are dashed. In the gaps between Herbert’s several trips abroad, the pair continue their “field-and-forest love” but their relationship comes to an abrupt end in 1913 when he leaves for an ill-fated Arctic expedition and never returns. Olga struggles to comfort herself with the son of her neighbor, Eik, until her life is derailed once more, first by Nazi law, then by the Great War.
The plot breaks off at this point. By adding Ferdinand, who tells how Olga cared for him when he served in the 1950s as a seamstress for his family in southwestern Germany, Schlink opens a new plot line. He formed a lifelong relationship and he became her successor. His testimony is a vivid image of a stoic survivor, a courageous woman who has discovered that “life is a series of losses,” but who has embraced her lot and has not let her down with thwarted hopes.
In the final section of the novel, which consists of Olga’s heartfelt letters to Herbert, a more rounded portrait emerges – “my mad, lost, frozen, fallen husband.” She expresses her fervent hope and undying love in these letters. Some letters contain bombshells, others contain reproaches: “Last year you said you would be back by Christmas,” she wrote in 1914. “This year the soldiers said they would. You men can’t be depended on.” While she gave up on him, she continues to write into the void, reflecting on the world he left behind and her place in it that is increasingly unclear.
In his international bestseller, The Reader, Schlink’s heroine is not as unforgettable as Hanna, the central female character. But Olga is still quite present, whether by her stern rejection of the colonial ambitions of Herbert (“Africa was not the fatherland. What was he doing there?”) or her unflinching willingness after any hard blow to pick herself up and dust herself off. The straightforward, unfussy prose of Schlink gives immediacy, sometimes strength, to his novel, and gives us a character we can sympathize with.