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Das Napoleon-Spiel.

Christoph Hein was already recognized as a promising playwright in both East and West Germany when he turned to prose in the early eighties. He has always been highly regarded too as a courageous and honest voice of reasonable protest in the GDR and was, not surprisingly, one of the speakers at the famous Alexander-platz demonstration on 4 November 1989.

Between 1982 and 1989 Hein published three major narratives: Der fremde Freund (1982; entitled Drachenblut in West Germany in 1983; see WLT 58:2, p. 265), Horns Ende (1985), and Der Tangospieler (1989; see WLT 64:2, p. 308), which, rightly, gained him the reputation of an artistically astute and psychologically subtle, humane though pessimistic chronicler of "everyday deformations in the GDR," as Sigrid Loffler, interviewing Hein in 1990, aptly put it. All three books have a solid story line, are well structured, and build up the tension toward the end skillfully--a virtue which Hein himself attributes to his being a playwright. The books expose the psychological vulnerability of most unassuming characters whose personal circumstances have been shaped and are affected or even shattered by the impositions and intrusions of East Germany's socialist society. Hein was confident in the above-mentioned interview (published in Christoph Hein, Texte, Daten, Bilder, L. Baier, ed., 1990) that German unification would not impair his creativity and his socially aware writing: "Die alten Themen habe ich noch; jetzt kommen noch neue hinzu."

However, Hein's latest prose work raises serious doubts about this assertion. A wealthy lawyer has murdered an insignificant clerk as an "acte gratuit," as Gide called it in his novel Les Caves du Vatican (1914). The book consists of a 200-page letter to his defense counsel which he writes while in detention awaiting trial. A twelve-page coda adds a second letter, written after his acquittal and after the opening of the Berlin Wall, in which the protagonist proposes a new "game" to his former defense counsel: to destroy a famous tycoon and politician. This is what the "Napoleon game" is all about: the protagonist has only one aim in life, namely to perfect the art of playing with fellow human beings as a means of overcoming the boredom of life and, equally, to perfect the art of billiards as a symbol of the former obsession. He feels compelled to emulate "mein[en] Vorfahr und grosse[n] Bruder," the ultimate gambler: Napoleon. It is with this guiding principle in mind that the protagonist turns his long letter into the narration of his life: his early sexual desire and exploits, his betrayal of family members, the abrogation of his social conscience, his move to West Germany and his law studies, his unscrupulous acquisition of wealth et cetera, his theory of gambling and calculatingly playing with life, and his contempt for morality and emotions, humanity and democracy.

It is clear that the book pinpoints elements of moral decay and of corruption in Germany since 1945 which may or may not be characteristic of a "capitalist" society or even of any modern society, but if the protagonist's story is intended to have some other significance, this escaped me. I found the book labored and farfetched and strangely uncharacteristic of Hein in its long-windedness and directness. The protagonist's constant boasting about his own evilness and his addiction to gambling, his ponderous legal jargon, and his tedious narration of insignificant events (e.g., his first spectacularly successful major court case) do not make for an important or even skillful work. Reluctantly, I have thus come to the conclusion that Hein has lost direction and gone astray. Perhaps he should take his time to assess the new political and social reality in Germany before embarking on a new literary project. He has never looked a happy man in photographs and admits to experiencing writing as "torture" and "hard labor" and to feeling unhappy when engaged in it (interview with Krzysztof Jachimczak, 1986; included in the above-cited Texte volume). Perhaps a period of reorientation and adjustment could alleviate the burden.

Christian Grawe University of Melbourne
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Author:Grawe, Christian
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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