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Anniversaries - from the Life of Gesine Cresspahl [Paperback]

Uwe Johnson , Leila Vennewitz
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt Paperbacks (1 April 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156011662
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156011662
  • Product Dimensions: 22.9 x 15.3 x 3.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,061,239 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Johnson was the first independent voice of Eastern Germany who rejected the consensus of the split nations and went to the United States to find an own perspective - to the Shoa, the two Germanies and the potential of socialism in the 60ties…
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Great German Novel 20 Sep 2001
By John D. Faucher - Published on Amazon.com
Gesine Cresspahl, a 34-year-old German national, single mother of a 10-year-old, lives in New York City and works for a large bank. Starting in August 1967, she records her thoughts, her life and her research into her family history every day for her daughter's benefit.
She comes from Mecklenburg, a province on Germany's Baltic coast. She was born on the weekend when the Nazis came to power in 1933 (echoes of The Tin Drum, except Gesine grew up). She grew up during the Nazi dictatorship, then the communist dictatorship. Somehow, she escaped from East Germany through Czechoslovakia and Frankfurt to reach her permanent residence in New York.
Her thoughts (sometimes they are clearly diary entries, other times they seem more glimpses into her consciousness) take us through several points in 20th-century German history. We see the land-baron Junker society of eastern Germany, tottering amid worker and farmer uprisings in the desperate years after World War I; her father gets caught in the struggles between socialists, communists and nationalists as the Nazis take power; religious figures suffer in the lawless Hitler regime.
At the same time, she observes her surroundings sharply: the upper West Side neighborhood in which she lives, the daily dispatches of America's Vietnam involvement, courtesy of that "friendly aunt, the New York Times," her ambivalent quasi-romantic involvement with alcoholic weapons engineer "D.E." The English title is slightly misleading: Gesine Cresspahl relates stories relevant to her life each particular day, rather than stories of what happened on each day in history. "Days of the Year" would be a better translation than "Anniversaries."
I read the first of the four "deliveries" of this novel on the recommendation of a German in-law; he said he thought it the most engrossing work he's read. I agree: the descriptions of the long-gone pre-1945 German society are fascinating, and Gesine is a striking narrator, as much for what she tells you about herself and her observations as what she does not. I read it very slowly (in German, 6 pages a night with my dictionary beside me), and never felt like giving up. Having finished volume one, I intend to continue my slow march through the 1,200 other pages to find out how Gesine left the Democratic Republic and to see if we find out anything more about Jacob, the mysterious father of her child.
The style is very down-to-earth. While Johnson (like Grass) may be trying to tell us something deeper about how Germans should handle their intimidating history, the message is subtle and not given at the expense of the interest in sheer narration.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The most complete account of modern German history 8 Dec 2006
By F. Hoffmann - Published on Amazon.com
"Anniversaries" is a tetralogy, and only two parts are translated into English. Thats a little unfortunate because it certainly is one of the most complete description of german history immediately before and after World War II. I also find it the most subtle and terrifying description of how the Nazis took power in Germany. I read all four parts in German and find that the first two parts are the best ones, so that you do not miss too much by not having the last two at hand.

Johnson tells the story of Gesine Cresspahl, who was born in Eastern Germany and now lives in New York with her 10 year old daughter. The book is structured like a diary, with an every day entry from August 1967 to August 1968. But it is not really a diary, because it is not her who writes the entries. Instead she "gave the right" to the writer to write down her thoughts, conversations and experiences during these 365 days. This style is somewhat similar to James Joyce' Ulysses, but certainly not directly comparable.

But the diary does not only refer to Gesine's life in New York, but it also refers to important experiences she made during her childhood and youth in pre-and post war Germany. In that way, Johnson contrasts Gesines life in modern New York to her childhood in rural Eastern Germany. He draws a huge panorama of 4 decades, starting with the raise of the Nazis in Germany, continuing with WWII, Soviet Occupation, beginning of the Cold War, modern life in US and the racial tensions of the 60's and ending with the Massacre in Prague in 1968.

It certainly is a major task to organize so much material, and most books choosing such a wide focus do fail completely (for example "Middlesex"). Not so "Anniversary". By using the diary-structure, Johnson really manages the huge amount of material quite well and keeps track of all the major and minor storylines without loosing the reader.

The book starts a little slowly, introducing us to the Cresspahl family living in a little Eastern German village at the beginning of the 30's. Quite soon we see the first signs of rising National Socialism: Some inhabitants of this village start to bad-mouthing the small Jewish community, and initially their old friend still support them. But this changes soon. The Nazis become stronger, and trying to keep their stakes, most people give up their relationships to the Jewish.

It is the major strength of the book to desribe this process of a slowly emerging dictatorship in a very subtle way. By focussing on a very small village where everybody knows each other, this process becomes the more terrifying. It is the best description of pre-WWII Germany I have read so far, and it is completely contained in the first 2 books.

The last two books, which are not in this edition, are considerably weaker and do not deserve 4 stars. Especially the third one which basically describes the transition phase between the end of WWII and separation of the 2 Germanies is not so good. The fourth part proceeds with the beginning of the Soviet Dictatorship, and we learn that people have not learned so much from Nazi-Germany so much, after all. But that does not only apply to Germans, it applies to us all and teaches us that we do have to fight every day for democracy and equal rights and that we should not tolerate any intolerance.
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