Would Georg and Gerlinde have been happy together if their parents had been truthful? Christoph Nussbaumeder’s debut novel is about far more than a failed love; it’s the story of the rise of a family and the societal panorama of a country over a century.
By Marit Borcherding
A colossal slice of a tree trunk adorns the cover of Christoph Nussbaumeder’s first novel Die Unverhofften (The Unexpected). Fitting, as over a narrative span of almost 700 pages we get to know the Hufnagel and Schatzschneider families, including their private and economic entanglements, in seven books that follow one another chronologically like growth rings from 1900 to the present day. And the slice of the tree also stands for the material on which the wealth of the Hufnagels is based: timber, felled in the Bavarian Forest near the German-Czech border.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the family owned a glassworks. There, the workers fight for their rights and the domestic Maria has to fend off the advances of the works owner Siegmund Hufnagel. He wants to prevent her emigration to America, he blackmails her, he rapes her. Out of revenge and anger, Maria sets the glassworks on fire – after killing her child. There is nothing left for her but to flee, to “set off into the unknown.”
Dramatic twistsIt’s a prelude to the actual story that could hardly be more eventful; the signature of the long-time successful playwright Nussbaumeder. His novel is a page-turner that constantly puts his players in dramatic and extraordinary situations, leading them to life crossroads that ensure his readers feel lasting empathy and curiosity about them. While his narrative of even the most unheard-of circumstances is rather reserved, sometimes even aloof, it has none of the usual maudlin, obtrusive tone we often find in family sagas.
The story jumps from the arson around 1900 straight to 1945. Thanks to ample insurance money, on the remains of the glassworks, which had already become unprofitable, a sawmill was built and successfully run by Josef Hufnagel. After the victory of the Allies over the Nazi dictatorship, he wasn’t the only person in Germany who tried to sweep any indication of ties to the former regime under the rug. And he manages to make a utile impression on the US occupational forces. This could all turn out splendidly if it weren’t for Erna Schatzschneider. She is one of the generally despised displaced persons and the daughter of Maria who fled earlier in the story. Erna confronts him with her pregnancy. Josef isn’t the father, but Erna makes him think he is to ensure her own survival and that of her child. Josef promises to help if she hides the fact that the child is his. In the end, only too happy to see himself as a dynastic patriarch and willing to pass his legacy on to the next generation, and because he is also drawn into politics, he promotes his supposed son Georg in excess and soon hands over the management of the sawmill to him.
Georg fully complies with these expectations of success, in part to shed the stigma of being a refugee boy. However, his love for Gerlinde, Josef’s actual daughter, gets in his way. Thinking he must prevent a case of incest, Josef stands between the young lovers and Erna offers no contradictions. She doesn’t reveal the truth until much later on, on her deathbed. “Informed” by her father, Gerlinde renounces Georg. From here on, Nussbaumeder traces their separate pathways. Georg’s leads, in a rapid success story, from sawmill owner, building contractor, corporate manager and real estate speculator to the top floor of a corporate tower in Munich.
the Private and the PoliticalGerlinde’s story is different. On her way to a promising degree in veterinary medicine, she quits her studies after breaking up with Georg, taking on all sorts of odd jobs. One takes her to Tuscany, but none offer her any security, not to mention prosperity. She makes her impact more in the interpersonal sphere and in later in life advocates for environmental protection in a new party called The Greens. It’s a life pattern that is not atypical for women of this generation.
One hallmark of the novel is that the main characters and the many distinctive supporting characters are reflected in the social and economic history of Germany and vice versa – almost like in a history book, but not as prosaic. On the contrary, Nussbaumeder convincingly brings these connections to life through his characters, who are both types and complex characters, and through his omniscient narrator.
back to the beginningThe lush narrative thread repeatedly leads back to Georg and Gerlinde. Later, they learn about the lie that destroyed their private happiness, but an attempt to rekindle their childhood love fails. As a result of an accident, Gerlinde dies impoverished and alone in a council flat that ironically belongs to Georg’s burgeoning financial empire. The story end here, but on a conciliatory, utopian note. Venture capitalist Georg, shaken by Gerlinde’s death and encouraged by his granddaughter Lea, a climate activist, reforms. He converts some of his flats into cooperatives and reactivates the old timber mill in his hometown. This circle closes, and yet another: In the final chapter, the fate of Maria, the escaped maid, is revealed – she survives in an unusual alliance: “True to the motto that life begins with secrets, the homosexual, the arsonist and the manslayer conspire in a triune entity. Rescue seemed possible only in the form of this threesome.”
Literary critics are celebrating Die Unverhofften as a windfall of a generational and social novel. And don’t we need a book to escape into in these socially distant times more than ever? A book that rewards our stamina with a multitude of ideas, reminiscences and above all the best of entertainment? Thanks go to Christoph Nussbaumeder, who wrote the book we need right now.
Christoph Nußbaumeder: Die Unverhofften
Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2020. 671 S.
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