Saturday, November 2, 2013

Unter den Linden and Kassandra by Christa Wolf

I'm not sure if an English translation of Unter den Linden is available, do let me know if you find one. Kassandra, on the other hand is definitely available in English, translated by Jan Van Heurck. Christa Wolf is pretty much among the most famous German authors and I am glad I read her works. I found Unter den Linden pleasantly contemplative and Kassandra was quite a read. What engaged me above all was reading up on the author's life. So, once done with these two, I was keen on acquiring her autobiographical novel: Stadt der Engel or The Overcoat of Dr. Freud; until I remembered the other German female authors I had waiting on my shelf. I'd still like to read Stadt der Engel, but maybe not right away!

Unter den Linden: There are three stories in this collection, but the title story alone is enough to completely enrapture the reader. Unter den Linden has an intriguing narrative structure. It is set in a dream and the line between fiction and reality is blurred. It is a Bildungsroman of sorts. The narrator walks through her past, in an effort to help us understand her, and in the process, ends up with more than she has bargained for. In her dream, she follows a young blonde woman, who acts as her counterpart, and comes across people from her life, a professor she seduced, a friend who died, and so on. As she dissects their actions, their faults and mistakes, she unwittingly uncovers something about herself. The prose is meandering, our narrator tends to go off on tangents and she spends much of the book musing over life. The most obvious theme of the book is self realization, and a few others could be betrayal or digging up and facing our bitterest secrets. The writing is so layered, that the deeper you dig, the more you are bound to find - I have to admit, I'll have to re-read it, more than once, to fully comprehend its message.

Kassandra: Ever since back when History Channel aired a TV movie on Helen of Troy, which my sister made me watch, I have been fascinated by this and it is one of the rare parts of mythology I'm relatively well versed in (I'm unusually bad with names.) Kassandra by Christa Wolf is a compelling retelling of the Trojan War, with the focus on Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. According to what I knew, she was a seer, who was cursed by Apollo, so that none of her predictions would ever be believed. She was widely held in contempt for her prophecies and was ridiculed on her suggestion that the Trojan horse could be a ploy by the Greek. The story is narrated by Cassandra, who after being sent off with Agamemnon following the war, is now held in captivity and awaits her death. She reveals in the book the maddening secret that lead to the fall of Troy. It is true that the story is based in history and mythology, but you don't have to read up on the Trojan war to follow it; just a little background info works; the story is mostly freestanding.

The only other proper retelling of a myth I have read is Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis and these two have one thing in common: the voice of a woman. But that's as far as the similarities go. Kassandra is about oppression, and Christa seems to have drawn heavily from her own experiences. The book was written in 1984, and when set in historical context, it is easy to relate the writer's own experience of the futile and essentially patriarchal nature of war with Cassandra's guilt about the part she played, if in spite of herself, in Troy's self-destruction. Kassandra is the kind of book that is written solely to make a point. While I appreciate the allegory, the story is often weighed down by gross exaggerations and one dimensional characters; there's a lot to learn, or be fascinated by even; I'm probably going to spend a long time looking things up, picking out allusions and trying to draw parallels. But the book offers little entertainment. That and the fact that the winding prose that I adored in Unter den Linden seems a bit confusing and twisted in Kassandra were the two minor irritations I had with the book. Other than that, Kassandra is a must read. I wanted to read the book in English, and I probably will, if only to reconfirm what I've understood!

If not anything else, these books were a fabulous kick-start to the German Literature Month 2013, hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy over at Lizzy's Literary Life. The book I plan to read next is lighter content-wise, but also a thriller: Erebos by Ursula Poznanski. I have a few other reads lined up, but I'm not planning so far ahead!

(Excuse the typos, if any; I have struggled through two German books in just one day, which is far more than I am used to, having stubbornly refused the luxury of a dictionary. I'm now exhausted and in no mood to re-read and edit this post!) 

3 comments:

Tony Malone said...

I hadn't heard of 'Unter den Linden', so thanks for the tip :) I'm sure the title is connected to the famous street which led up to the Brandenburg Gate - and the wall... 'Kassandra' is one I'd like to try, but haven't got around to just yet. By coincidence, Wolf will be my next German Literature Month post - but a different one...

Priya said...

Oh!! Did I actually forget to mention that!? It *is* connected to that road; it's where the whole dream (and present) is set. In fact, she starts the story saying, 'I have always liked walking along Unter den Linden. And most of all, as you well know, alone.'
Kassandra is worth the read, and I'll watch out for your other review!

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