Aladdin’s Problem (Magill Book Reviews)
ALADDIN’S PROBLEM brings to an English-speaking audience the freshest work of Germany’s famous Ernst Junger, whose tightly constructed novels center on humanity’s response to an obsessively materialist world. Born in 1895 and still writing vigorously, Junger combines this interest with his search for a morally satisfying response to the problem of Germany’s Nazi past.
Before striking it rich, like Aladdin, or postwar West Germany with its “economic miracle,” the novel’s protagonist Friedrich Baroh personifies the suffering Germany endured as a consequence of letting Hitler come to power. Growing up fatherless in East Berlin, and drafted into the East German People’s Army, Friedrich has lost home and spiritual bearings to World War II. Rebelling against the joyless Communist regime, he defects to the West.
After a marriage for love and years as a poor student, Friedrich gets wealthy in the funeral business of his uncle, Fridolin Gadke. Yet success estranges him from his wife, Bertha. It is she, however, who discovers the perfect site for a modern-day city of the dead in some strange caves in central Turkey, a geological wonder.
Faced with the prospect of near-endless wealth, with the booming of his necropolis, Friedrich loses his appetite for life. Instead of enjoying his riches, as did Aladdin with his princess bride Budur al-Badr, Friedrich starts drinking; his daydreams begin to take up most of his waking life.
Now appears the mysterious Phares, a favorite character of Ernst Junger’s, who features in many of his works. A Jewish wise man, Phares shows Friedrich the interconnectedness of all life in the cosmos. This gives Friedrich new hope, new love for Bertha, and a renewed zeal for life.
With ALADDIN’S PROBLEM, Ernst Junger offers a fascinating, well-written, and quick-moving reflection on the problems of success and the complicated legacy World War II has bequeathed the Germans. Through his protagonist’s tragicomic struggles, Junger explores whether love and a meaningful life can still exist in the modern world. The novel’s answer is a guarded yes.
Sources for Further Study
Library Journal. CXVII, October 15, 1992, p. 99.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 11, 1992, p. 6.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, November 22, 1992, p. 24.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, September 7, 1992, p. 80.
Aladdin’s Problem (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
At the peak of his career, Friedrich Baroh, the thirty-seven-year-old protagonist and first-person narrator of Ernst Jünger’s well-told tale Aladdin’s Problem, likens himself to the Arabic folk hero whose life changed instantly when he found the genie-bearing magic lamp. Having struck it rich with an esoteric scheme for a modern-day necropolis, Baroh, like Aladdin, must confront his new power to realize his material dreams.
Unlike Aladdin, Baroh is deeply disturbed by this. Instead of enjoying his wealth with his wife Bertha, as did Aladdin with his princess bride, he starts drinking. His daydreams begin to take up most of his waking life. It is at this point that the mysterious Phares, a favorite character of the author who appears in many of his writings, contacts Baroh.
Jünger, a German writer well known in Europe, offers a fascinating, well-written, and quick-moving reflection on the problems of material success. By making his protagonist a displaced East German, Jünger weds his philosophical examination to a deep-cutting scrutiny of the complicated legacy that World War II bequeathed to the Germans. Through his protagonist’s tragicomic struggles, Jünger brings these two themes together as his novel asks the central question: Are love, friendship, and a meaningful life still possible in a world full of money but utterly devoid of an overall moral, spiritual, or ethical guidance system?
In answering, Jünger proceeds deliberately but sure-footedly. His narrative, spiked with on-target aphorisms, never rushes to a conclusion, even though Baroh must make some hard decisions very quickly. In accordance with Jünger’s narrative strategy of coupling incremental gains in insight with rapid plot movements, Baroh confesses only to having a problem at the opening of Aladdin’s Problem. Until the last part of the four-part novel, he mentions neither the exact nature of his life-arresting troubles nor the name of Aladdin.
The novel begins with Baroh’s recollection of his family background and his military service in the East German People’s Army. The descendant of a long line of East Prussian nobles, in the early 1950’s Baroh becomes one of the hundreds of thousands of German refugees who lose their homes, located in the portion of Germany given to Poland after World War II. Too young to have fought in Adolf Hitler’s war, Baroh lost his father in Russia and now goes to school in the eastern part of the divided city of Berlin.
By making his protagonist an aristocratic East Prussian German, Jünger combines the ideas of proud heritage and devastating loss, of rich tradition and utter extinction by history. Prussia was devastated by the two world wars of the twentieth century. At the time of the novel’s original publication in 1983, even the western part of Prussia was in the hands of a Communist regime.
In Baroh, Jünger skillfully personifies this national loss. Aladdin’s Problem also addresses the painful question of how a German can come to terms with the consequences of two lost wars, the last one a war of aggression that ended in a general catastrophe for the attackers. Baroh carries Jünger’s answer in his mental response to a difficult conversation with his Polish friend Captain Jagello Müller:
When we [Germans] travel today…in faraway countries, we feel that a brother lies under the ground. He calls to us, and we have to restrain ourselves like the sons of Korah in Psalm 88: “Prayer in great tribulation and imminent mortal danger.”
The losses incurred by following an evil leader must be accepted and mourned privately.
In this spirit of both accepting the past and remaining conscious of his heritage, after completing school in East Berlin, Baroh goes back of his “own free will” to his family town of Liegnitz, now a Polish city. There, he serves in a rifle regiment of the East German army, which is garrisoned in barracks now belonging to a fellow Warsaw Pact nation. Here, the magic of the past has been reduced to faint archaeological evidence. Looking up at the entrance, Baroh can still discern “the outline of our coat-of-arms appearing under the crumbling plaster.” Before the war, he thinks, these military installations had “borne the name of...
(The entire section is 1761 words.)