Worthy of a place alongside On the Marble Cliffs, Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Death of Virgil and other modernist German...


A vast novel—if novel it is—of the tangled lives of anti-Nazi Germans on the Spanish island of Majorca in the years leading up to World War II.

Some of those Germans were communists, others Jews; all were destined to be denounced, and many killed, when Franco’s soldiers finished their fascist revolution with the help of the Third Reich. That’s a grim matter of history, but Thelen (1903–1989) is anything but grim for much of this book, which was published in Germany in 1953 and has enjoyed a somewhat uneasy stance as a classic ever since—somewhat uneasy, that is, because it deals with matters that many Germans of the time would have just as soon forgotten. Even on dark matters, though, Thelen squeezes in unlikely jokes “A Spaniard who is ready to shoot today instead of tomorrow—how very odd!” he exclaims. Or rather, his alter ego, named Vigoleis and married, as was Thelen, to a woman named Beatrice, exclaims. To call this a roman à clef is to risk making too much of the connection between the author’s life and that of his protagonist, though one wonders whether this book is fictional in the same sense that Kenneth Rexroth’s An Autobiographical Novel is fiction—that is to say, not much at all. Whatever the case, Vigoleis is a sharp-eyed observer of his fellow Germans, both those on the island and those left far back home in the untender hands of Herr Hitler. Vigoleis may wish for detachment—he describes early on his “congenital aversion to contact with the external world”—but he becomes the unlikely center of a wheel whose spokes are both Spanish and German, and he is expected to perform miracles on behalf of all concerned. Of one clergy-hating Majorcan who asks him to invent a gallows that could humanely kill a priest “in a single stroke,” he notes, “I referred him to my fellow countrymen in the Third Reich, who were now the experts in mass executions.” Fortunately, Vigoleis—like Thelen in real life—manages to get away before he himself is the subject of an execution, leaving behind his beloved island, not quite a paradise but not quite a slaughterhouse, foreboding imagery notwithstanding.   

Worthy of a place alongside On the Marble Cliffs, Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Death of Virgil and other modernist German masterworks; a superb, sometimes troubling work of postwar fiction, deserving the widest possible audience.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4683-0116-8

Page Count: 816

Publisher: Overlook

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2012

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.


The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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