Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The opening sentence of the book provides the key to its meaning: “What is past is not dead; it is not even past.” In fact, it is a dangerous delusion to believe that the German past has been overcome and that 1945 represented a clean break with Fascism. In the mid-1970’s, the narrator finds variants of Fascism in Greece, Chile, and the American treatment of Vietnam (aside from criticism of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries are spared direct criticism). Despite the Socialist revolution in the German Democratic Republic, the novel shows that disquieting attitudes persist: A cabdriver is defensive about German war guilt, an East German youth group sings Nazi songs outside Prague, and even Lutz displays an anti-Polish bias and would prefer to forget about what happened between 1933 and 1945. In order to overcome such repression and memory loss, particularly in her own case, the narrator insists on seeing the process of remembering as an endlessly repeated moral act. Yet her writing can only partially and tentatively answer the haunting question, “How did we become what we are today?”

When they joined their respective Nazi organizations, both Nelly and her father “opted for the thousands” and against themselves. The narrator’s lengthy struggle to become accountable for her childhood self—to learn to say “I” rather than “she”—exemplifies Wolf’s search for subjective authenticity. By becoming so intensely...

(The entire section is 463 words.)