UPDATE 1.2017: Sadly, this book is no longer available on Smashwords or elsewhere so far as I can see - which is a pity.
This novel by Steve Anderson has already received a number of positive reviews on Smashwords and elsewhere, but I was also drawn to it for personal reasons – of which, more later.
The starting point of the novel is simple: after one beer too many at the Munich Oktoberfest, our rather hapless hero, Gordy, is unable to resist passing himself off as a Fulbright scholar, on the trail of undiscovered material in the Munich archives – containing revelations which could prove to be as sensational as the Hitler diaries (if only they hadn’t been forgeries). Next thing, he’s got himself mixed up with some sinister but rather inept Neo-nazi types.
I won’t say much more about the plot so as not to spoil it, except to mention that there is some romantic interest – with the commitment-phobic Gordy finding himself torn between his simpering US girlfriend Gwen (who’s supposed to be coming to join him in Munich) and a fiery and enigmatic German girl (who seems genuinely interested in archival research). “Besserwisser”, by the way, can be translated as “Know-it-all” and/or “Wannabe” and can (probably) be taken as a reference to any or all of Gordy, experts on the Nazi period and/or Gordy’s neo-Nazi antagonists.
I particularly liked the deadpan humour, but the author also manages to make Gordy sufficiently likeable (despite his many, many faults) that you care what happens to him – which is not always a given in fiction of this type. He also does an excellent job of depicting East Germany just after the Berlin Wall came down (but before reunification). I know because I went there - which is partly why I felt a personal connection to this book. Anyway, if you don’t like reviews which contain long and rambling personal anecdotes, you should stop reading now. Just be grateful that you haven’t had one beer too many at the Munich Oktoberfest and I haven’t just sat down next to you dressed in my lederhosen, having decided that you are my best friend in all the world and I need to tell you my life story (well, some of it, anyway).
In 1989-90 I was doing the 3rd year of my degree course, which consisted of spending a year “teaching” (well, some of the time, anyway) English at a German secondary school in Neumuenster (which is at the opposite end of the country from Munich and probably a lot less fun – not that it stopped me having a good time). And 1989 of course was the year that the Wall came down. So there I was – able to witness history unfolding before my very eyes. Except that – and this is also where I feel something of a personal connection to Gordy – I’m sorry to say that my mind was sort of elsewhere at the time.
It was partly to do with being a student – somehow beer and having a good time seemed to loom larger in my life at that time than major shifts in the geopolitical landscape. But I think I also got slightly anaesthetised to it all because in the run-up to the Wall coming down, West German news consisted of wall-to-wall (excuse the pun) coverage of all the refugees from the DDR pouring out of the country (mostly via various other communist bloc states, where they were allowed to go on holiday – what fun that must have been) and into West Germany. The trouble was, when you’ve seen one interview with a guy sporting a mullet hairstyle and bleached denim explaining why he wants to come to the West (“it’s because you have democracy and colour TV” – or was it the other way around?), you’ve seen them all.
On top of which, I couldn’t see how it was possibly going to turn out well – it seemed to me that it was probably going to end up with the Russians stepping in to put a stop to it all, as usual. So after a while, I’m afraid I just tuned out - and when the Wall did actually come down, it was so sudden and unexpected that it took me quite a while to grasp what had actually happened. It all seemed slightly unreal – much as Gordy in “Besserwisser” finds himself wrapped up in something he can’t quite believe is happening to him. So although the novel isn’t specifically about the Wall coming down, it chimed with my own experience of being a foreign student in Germany at more or less the same time.
So did the depiction of East Germany just after the Wall came down, which features in the later stages of the novel. I didn’t travel as widely as the author sounds to have done, but I did get to East Berlin while it was still the DDR. One memory sort of sums it up for me. I was just wandering around aimlessly and came across a shop that sold paint. The window display consisted of about 10 cans artfully arranged in a pyramid formation; they were grey, dark green and a kind of washed out brown. They seemed to be all the colours that the DDR could produce.
As “Besserwisser” accurately observes, the collapse of the DDR gave a new lease of life to a minority of people with unsavoury – if ludicrous – right-wing views. And not just in the DDR. Back in West Germany, I recall having to sit through excruciating far-right lectures from the father of a German girl to whom I was giving extra lessons in English. He was a member of Bund der Vertriebenen (“League of the Driven-Out”), an association representing German families which had been driven out of areas like the Sudetenland at the end of World War II. Whilst I have some sympathy with them given the way they were treated at the end of the war, it doesn’t justify the revisionist version of history this guy was peddling (e.g. the whole of WWII was a conspiracy between the Jews and “gangsters” like Churchill, who supposedly had a vendetta against the Germans).
It was quite an eye-opener for me at the time – and slightly surreal to come across it in such a bourgeois, middle class setting (with not a skinhead or neo-Nazi tattoo in sight). I don’t think his daughter shared his views – the poor girl looked mortified every time he brought the subject up. To my eternal shame, I didn’t really challenge him either – I just didn’t say much and made up a lot of excuses about why I couldn’t really stay to chat.
Anyway, the serious point I’m trying to make here, in an extremely roundabout fashion, is that neo-nazism was alive and well in 1990 and is likely to be with us for some time to come – but the best response to it is for people to carry on writing and reading books like “Besserwisser”, because there’s nothing a fascist hates more than being made to look ridiculous.
In : Book reviews
Tags: besserwisser "steve anderson" ddr "east germany" "berlin wall" satire "comic novel"
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