Wednesday 27 March 2013

Christoph Fischer: The Luck of the Weissensteiners (2012)

Edition: ebook provided by author (2013)
Review number: 1474

The story of Slovakia in the thirties and forties is likely to be quite obscure to most British people, even those interested in the Second World War (which, as far as the histories commonly read in the UK are concerned, mainly happened in Western Europe, the North Atlantic, North Africa, and the Far East). Briefly, Slovakia was part of the Czechoslovakian republic which formed when Austria-Hungary collapsed at the end of the First World War, and had large German and Jewish minorities as part of its population. After Hitler gained power in Germany (the date at which The Luck of the Weissensteiners opens), Slovakia's German population became more powerful and nationalistic, until Czechoslovakia was split up, Slovakia becoming an independent republic which was a German ally (and effectively puppet state) during the war years, hard times to be a Jew in the area.

The central character of the novel, Greta Weissensteiner, is the book-loving daughter of a Jewish weaver, who falls in love with the German shop assistant Wilhelm in the town bookshop in 1933. Over the next few years, the story follows the increasing pressure on their relationship from the political situation in the country, leading to a spilt orchestrated by Wilhelm's rather unpleasant sister and the Weissensteiner family going into hiding.

The story itself and the way that the political changes going on around them affect the lives of the characters are fascinating. Fischer attempts to answer some difficult questions, such as why many people began to accept Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda: many people were fooled into believing that Jews were inferior beings, and didn't just go along with what they were told as a public necessity. Fischer portrays people who are just stupid, or who want to believe the lies for other, personal, reasons. Other aspects of The Luck of the Weissensteiners were less to my taste, however. One of the quirks of Fischer's writing is the way that the reader is frequently told the emotions and desires of the characters directly. Many paragraphs in this novel start with sentences like "Apart from the fear, she also felt guilty for hurting his feelings", chosen from a random page about half way through. This occurs so often that it begins to feel as though the narrative has a huge number of different viewpoints which are swapped between almost randomly. I often found the dialogue rather stilted, too, and so never really managed to suspend disbelief in the story. Other readers might well not be as finicky about this kind of stylistic point as I am, but for me these problems rather spoiled what was otherwise an interesting story with an interesting setting. My rating: 5/10.