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The early-1930s rise of Nazism, its corruption of Germany's cultural traditions--in an allegorical story that begins forcefully, then becomes increasingly belabored. In 1980s Florida, semi-retired physician Richard Stammler has a chance encounter with his long-ago friend Dr. Paul Schneider, who's now an aged, ailing tourist from Germany. And this edgy reunion triggers Stammler's memories of 1930 Hamburg--when the two fledgling medicos were residents at the City Hospital. In this book-length flashback, then, the young Stammler is begged and bullied by hospital cleaning-woman Irma Mueller: she manically insists that Dr. Stammler come to her tenement apartment--to examine her demented son Karl Erich, 24, who has been mute and near-catatonic since his soldier-father's death in 1918. The diagnosis? Hysterical aphasia. So, very slowly, with a mixture of speech therapy, psychoanalysis, and affection, Stammler re-teaches Karl Erich how to talk, introducing the handsome, innocent youth to the noble cadences of Goethe. (""I was Michelangelo creating my David."") Eventually, a worshipful, grateful Karl Erich can speak beautifully, can function in the world: with help from mercenary Dr. Schneider, he finds a job down in Munich. But, as most readers will guess in advance, naive Karl Erich soon uses his new-found oratorical gifts to aid Munich's rising Nazi movement--becoming a national Aryan hero, the husband of movie-star Liese-Lotte Reinemuth. And Dr. Stammler, who has always had ""absolute faith in the decency of the German people and the moral and intellectual superiority of German culture,"" is ever more horrified: two dear friends are killed by a Nazi mob; amoral Dr. Schneider falls in with the brown-shirts; and Dr. Stammler, confronting his warped, adoring Frankenstein monster, zaps Karl Erich back into speechlessness. . . by announcing ""I was born a Jew."" The central allegory here--Karl Erich as a stand-in for the ordinary German people, basically decent and gullible--becomes both heavyhanded and simplistic in the second half of this curious parable. But the first half, with the Pygmalion-esque grab of Karl Erich's journey from mute to orator, has a quiet, plainly affecting power.

Pub Date: Jan. 23rd, 1984
Publisher: St. Martin's