By Ursula Hegi.
187 pages
NY: Vintage Contempories, 1990
ISBN: 0-679-73115-6

Comments by Bob Corbett
December 2003

Weíve all learned that you canít tell a book by its cover. However, I too often make the mistake of paying attention to the publicity quotes that editors put on book covers. Once again, I was badly misled.

The publisher quotes a L.A. Times reviewer as saying:

ďÖ [Hegi] has created an absolutely correct post war Germany with all its forbidden questions and mysterious behavior, all is squalor, loss and longing.Ē

Happily, instead of THAT book, what I found was Ursula Hegiís stunningly beautiful collection of verbal portraits told with acute sensitivity, poetic language and significant insights into the human condition and human society that far transcends the time (1950s) or the place (a small German village on the Rhine) in which the action takes place.

This is neither a novel in the sense I am used to -- some continuous story with one or more lines of plot that give it a unity Ė nor a book of short stories, though it resembles one. Rather it is a series of human portraits, 19 or 20 of them. There is nonetheless some unity. Young Hanna Malter is the narrator and each episode is from her life experience or stories she retells from their original source Ė some other village member.

While set in 1950s small town Germany, the portraits are universal. They deal with the everyday lives and foibles of simple people. There are no extraordinary people, though a few like Hannaís own mother, a painter, and the sister of the local pastor, rise at least to the level of social outcasts with the courage to be different.

We encounter a hopeless drunk who endangers his son and accidentally commits suicide as his stoic wife watches. We canít help root for the handicapped sister of the local priest who runs away with a young school teacher just arriving to town. We share the pain of a young teen who is ashamed to learn that everyone knows what he didnít Ė he was the illegitimate son of a wartime romance. There is a touch of the occult or superstitious in the tale of an elderly woman using mysterious oils and touch to heal; the ironic tale of a man with obsessive fears whose seven dogs he keeps for his protection finally attack and kill him, realizing his paranoid dream.

On and on, villagers are laid naked before us and what is noteworthy is simply how ordinary these people are, how many times similar dramas have been played out in societies of every time and every land.

I would rank this as one of the best written books Iíve read in 2003 at least, if not longer.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu