Jonathan Steinberg

Life, death and everything in between

There’s nothing like this sprawling, 2,000-page novel covering Nazi Germany, the Mafia and the Vietnam War for ambition and atmosphere

The most striking and difficult aspect of this novel is its incredible scale. How can a reviewer best discuss an enterprise containing a vast survey of life in Germany, Britain and the United States and the transformations of these societies from the end of the 19th century to the 1980s?

Two volumes cover the experience of age and youth, the rise of the Nazis in Mecklenburg, the second world war, life and death in a small German town, the evolution of East German communities and the emergence of a Soviet state after the war.

The New York Times appears in more or less every chapter, as the conveyer of the story of the Vietnam war and events in the city of New York itself. There are accounts of Mafia dealings and other street crimes. The protagonists of the novel, Gesine Cresspahl and her daughter Marie, live where Uwe Johnson himself lived between 1966 and 1968: apartment 204, 243 Riverside Drive, New York, NY10025.

Gesine has been living in New York for six years with her clever, restless daughter Marie. Against a background of murder in Vietnam and riots and conflict in Manhattan, Gesine decides to tell Marie the story of Germany and her own life before she arrived in America.

This vast work covers the Holocaust, and in various chapters the deaths of German war criminals and other felons are mixed in with different events:

Herr Paul Zapp, 63 years old, has been arrested in Bebra, a small Hessian town, for the murder of at least 6,400 Jews in the occupied Soviet Union. Until the day before yesterday, an assumed name was all he needed.

The text is dense with detail: Mrs Ferwalter, a neighbour in the building, sits in the park with Gesine, who sees a number tattooed on the inside of her arm and instantly recognises it.

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