The Tin Drum, By Günter Grass trans Breon Mitchell<br />Self's Murder, By Bernhard Schlink trans Peter Constantine<br />A Minute's Silence, By Siegfried Lenz trans Anthea Bell

Reviewed,Boyd Tonkin
Friday 13 November 2009 01:00 GMT

In some fantasy parallel universe of open-door British publishing, we might greet the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall by hailing the English version of Uwe Tellkamp's Der Turm. After all, Tellkamp's landmark epic of Dresden in the 1980s, as the GDR slithered towards its end, won the Booker-equivalent German Book Prize a year ago. Back in the real world of scant and sluggish translations, readers who have had their curiosity about Germany's singular modern fate piqued or re-ignited by this week's uneasy partying have the usual UK mixed bag of literary imports to enjoy: the re-translation of a momentous classic that scrubs up beautifully, a crime novel with political resonance from a global bestseller, and – the nicest find of all – a late-career gem by another postwar master of conscience and memory.

If you have never heard The Tin Drum's beat in the half-century since Günter Grass published his nation-shaking debut, unstop your ears right away. Both Grass himself, in a preface, and the novel's new translator Breon Mitchell, pay their respects to Ralph Manheim – who first brought little Oskar Mazerath and his tragi-comic carnival of Third Reich and "economic miracle" Germany into English. But Mitchell has captured the novel's syncopated, driving rhythms with an extra brio and brilliance. Grass's breathtaking courage and virtuosity in the face of what he now calls "the gestation of German history" that "had brought forth piles of rubbish and dead bodies" resonated far beyond his borders.

The Tin Drum taught Salman Rushdie to "Go for broke... Aim for the stars"; to John Irving, it proved that a living writer could blend "fury, love, derision, slapstick, pathos" with "unforgiving conscience", just as Dickens had a century before. Among countless other novels, Midnight's Children and The World According to Garp would not conceivably exist without this book. Influential readers who reject fiction in translation, such as the otherwise sensible Nick Hornby, also cut themselves off from the sources of much of their favourite Anglophone literature. What a weird sort of self-mutilation.

Yet even those outsiders who appreciate the postwar German voice tend to expect it to sing on one note. History, to paraphrase Joyce, is the nightmare from which English-language readers don't want German writers to awaken. From the connoisseur's choice – WG Sebald – to the mass-market option – Bernhard Schlink – Britons and north Americans prefer their Germans reflective and remorseful, telling the sad old stories of tyranny, brown or red, and its lingering aftermath.

Of course, post-1945 German authors have excavated the bloodstained rubble of their past with such tenacity that you can hardly blame foreigners for following suit. But the shadow of the swastika (or, lately, the red star) does still seem to lend an international cachet – even in the world of whodunnits.

First published in 2001, Self's Murder belongs to the series of amiable, ruminative private-eye mysteries in which the author of The Reader puts his background as judge and law professor to gently satisfying use. By making his seventy-plus Mannheim gumshoe Gerhard Self – with his ailing ticker, fondness for a glass and a smoke, and sharp memories of the history that many want to dump – a veteran of the Nazi period, Schlink ensures a first-person perspective on six decades of turmoil.

Here, Self's investigations of a venerable but dodgy private bank at first seems to lead to a denouement that fits the novel's late-1990s ambience. Burly Russian mafiosi channel hot money through the clumsy hands of gormless Ossis in beige anoraks and rayon slacks as gangster capitalism hits sedate eastern Germany like a gale out of Siberia. Or does this scam hide another, more sinister exploitation of past crimes?

Chugging along more at a Trabant than Porsche speed, Schlink delivers a wry, sympathetic portrait of old codgers West and East blown off balance by the winds of change. As Self and his grizzled buddies plan to sort out the rot at the Weller & Welker bank, this sometimes feels closer to a Rhenish Last of the Summer Wein than The Wire. But his forte - and Schlink's – is that history lives in him, and he has sacrificed a legal career because "I resisted, body and soul, acting with my colleagues as if we had no past".

After an unhappy return to Berlin (where he gets chucked in the Landwehr canal by both neo-Nazi teenagers and anti-fascists), Self grasps that the post-Communist intrigue masks a deeper, darker secret that dates from the Third Reich. For the bad banker, all that trauma is just "water under the bridge". Self, in his modest, honest fashion, knows that you can still catch your death of cold from it.

Some German masters stand at an even more oblique angle to the painful past. In this month of commemoration, we can thank heaven for a small – but exquisite – mercy in the shape of Siegfried Lenz's A Minute's Silence. A colleague of Grass and Heinrich Böll in the Gruppe 47 band of postwar literary pioneers, Lenz has in novels such as The German Lesson and Heritage matched Grass in a fiction of witness and warning that learns from the madness of modern history without being engulfed by it.

Its writing interrupted by a grief-stricken period of blockage when Lenz's wife's died after 57 years of marriage, A Minute's Silence is a superbly crafted novella of first love, with a tenderly evocative sense of place, mood and era. As so often, we have Anthea Bell to thank for a flawless translation which captures a prose that shifts in nuance as often as the North Sea winds and currents that run through the story.

Christian, the son of a boat-owner and "stone-fisher" who does harbour maintenance in a small port and resort on the bracing northern coast that Lenz has made his own, remembers a fragile affair he had as an 18-year-old schoolboy. He fell for his English teacher, the athletic, adventurous Stella, and she – apparently – for him, during a summer of delicately drawn parties, seaside outings and the lonely introspection of a youth on the brink of adult emotions. But Stella has died after a freak yachting accident, returning from a holiday in the Danish islands, and ecstasy has turned to elegy. Young love's playful present darkens into the hard work of memory, because "what's past did happen, after all, and it will last".

The teacher may like, even desire, Christian, but she doesn't rate him as a student. We learn that English culture entered her family's life in "the skies over Kent": her bomber-crew father was shot down and, as a POW in Yorkshire, befriended by the farmer on whose land he worked.

Now, in this quiet corner of the still-divided land of the "economic miracle", she sets her class Animal Farm. But Christian fluffs his essay as he fails to realise that Orwell's tale is an allegory of "the miseries of revolution", and a story that "says one thing but also tells us another". Does A Minute's Silence do the same? British readers have, perhaps, become a little too keen to read every postwar German fiction as a disguised historical fable of that kind. Suggestively rich in overtones and undercurrents, Lenz's beautiful miniature also stands alone as a masterclass in "the grammar of farewell".

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