LOVE CAN TRIGGER great transcending leaps of intelligence and, also, fundamental, blind stupidity. When Jurgen Schutrumpf meets Giovanna Tolu, his whole world changes. Through his love for Giovanna, Jurgen begins to see everything clearly for the first time; he recognizes the potential forces of value in his life. What he fails to recognize is the monumental difficulty involved in applying those values to the world in which he exists. Jurgen is the protaganist of Peter O. Chotjewitz's The Thirty Years Peace, a first novel that has strong, clean prose, solid structure, a persuasive tone, and the full commitment of its author's intensely held views working in its favor. It has a significant story to tell, too.
The narrative begins, very matter-of-factly, with Jurgen's birth in a suburb of a war-damaged industrial town in Germany in 1949 and proceeds crisply from that point, giving an account of Jurgen's childhood and adolescence, along with detailed portraits of Jurgen's parents, Adolph and Edith, and substantial impressions of his younger brother, Herbert; his friend, Pels; his first girlfriend, Ilse; and others. Chotjewitz's laconic humor makes these passages very engaging. Like black-and-white photography, the prose has the feeling of unadorned naturalism. It draws the reader into the story and into an identification with Jurgen. At the same time, there is a great deal of social documentation, which builds steadily and gradually evolves into a sharply particularized depiction of the moral vacuum behind the "economic miracle" of postwar Germany.
Jurgen is trapped in that vacuum. He sees the marriage of his parents become "a routine and somewhat tired life in harness." His impulse toward creativity, first given release in his attempt to become a composer and, later, in his efforts to become a philosopher, dies on the vine. His grasping, futile attempt at romance with the bourgeois Ilse, leads only to frustration and loss. At the age of 24, Jurgen tells a friend, "I don't even want to know who I really am. I don't want to know what's inside me. I bet that if people could see inside themselves they'd be shocked.
"I bet there's a terrible mess inside me."
Soon after this, while on vacation on the island of Sardinia, Jurgen meets Giovanna, a well-educated young woman, a native of the island, and a Communist. Jurgen goes with Giovanna to the village of Orgosolo, her home, where he hears music that makes "all the highly cultivated music of Europe" seem like "pure garbage."
He feels this because the music he hears in Orgosolo embodies all that he has recognized as valuable in Giovanna's attitudes and culture, who remains vitally intact and human, despite all the poverty, injustice and political oppression she has encountered. Jurgen returns to Germany, to the factory where he works, determined to change things for himself. Giovanna follows. She wants to see Germany. He wants her. She is central to his new vision. sActing out his commitment to her, failing to recognize the degree to which he is trapped in his own past, Jurgen strikes back as the society that created the conditions of his life, with tragicomic results.
Political consciousness has been the major keynote in recent German literature. Gruppe 47 (a loose association of left-wing writers, established in 1947) has involved in its activities the novelists Heinrich Boll, Uwe Johnson and Gunter Grass, and the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger -- four of Germany's leading literary figures. Chotjewitz's concern with the political aspects of life and literature place him firmly in that tradition. Didactic fiction has recognized drawbacks, most especially in the area of conflict between developing characters according to fictional autonomy and developing them according to a preconceived design intended to reveal the evils of a particular society.
Chotjewitz sidesteps this problem very nicely in his formal decision-making.
It is established, early in the narrative, that this is an "as told to" story, a reconstruction of the events leading to the novel's climax based on interviews with most of the main characters. This tactic encourages the reader to make allowances for any deficiencies of characterization, and it also gives the story a feeling of authenticity, dramatically emphasized at the conclusion of the story, when we are told that the author has changed the names of the characters. Whether or not The Thirty Years Peace is based on fact matters less than its impact. Chotjewitz's viewpoint regarding German society is decidedly Marxist and this may be a decisive factor in terms of its impact on many readers. It is very convincing, certainly, and its massive popularity in Germany would seem to attest to its authenticity. Whatever else may be said of it, this novel is brilliantly conceived and well executed, and Peter O. Chotjewitz is the most exciting novelist to have emerged in Germany since Peter Handke.