Crazy in Berlin, which opens on Carlo Reinhart’s twenty-first birthday, is Berger’s only remotely autobiographical novel, a coming-of-age tale in which his protagonist learns something about the complexities of the modern world. As an Army medic in Berlin following the end of World War II, Reinhart meets a wide variety of Americans, Germans, and Russians who introduce him to love, chaos, and madness. He spends much of the novel wandering from one lying or misinformed person to another as he acquires some sense of his identity.
The other characters include the idealistic Lieutenant Schild, a Jewish communist who leaks military secrets to the Russians; Lichenko, a Red Army deserter and would-be capitalist harbored temporarily by Schild; Bach, a giant, philosophical invalid who presents a case for anti-Semitism even though he hid his Jewish wife from the Nazis for four years; Dr. Otto Knebel, a former communist, tortured and blinded in a Russian concentration camp, who becomes a fascist after the fall of the Nazis; and Schatzi, a former supporter of Adolf Hitler imprisoned in Auschwitz for his criminal activities and now a cynical Soviet agent. Then there are the three women in Reinhart’s life: Lori, Bach’s wife and Knebel’s twin sister, who represents for Reinhart an unattainable romantic ideal; Trudschen, Lori’s whorish, masochistic, sixteen-year-old cousin, who appeals to Reinhart’s irrational side; and Veronica Leary, a flirtatious, buxom Army nurse, who represents vulgar American normality.
After Schild, betrayed by Schatzi, is abducted by two communist agents, Reinhart attempts to rescue him. He kills one of the abductors, but Schild is murdered by the other. Reinhart, who receives a serious head wound, undergoes six months of therapy in a psychiatric ward. He obtains revenge for Schild by betraying the treacherous Schatzi.
Reinhart tells his psychiatrist that Schild was insane for believing in the King Arthur stories he read as a boy and that he is himself crazy for sharing Schild’s romantic idealism. Reinhart senses that traditional values are without philosophical justification, yet he remains loyal to them in the name of decency and civilized behavior. Constantly musing on what it means to be Jewish, consumed by guilt over his German ancestry, aware of his potential for evil, Reinhart sees all sides to every argument and feels responsible for any injustice. He is on a seemingly endless quest to understand what cannot be understood.
Reinhart’s often comic quest continues in Reinhart in Love, in which he returns to what passes for normality in the United States, finishes college, and marries a shrew; Vital Parts (1970), in which he has become a middle-aged failure at marriage, fatherhood, and business; and Reinhart’s Women (1981), in which he keeps house for his daughter, a successful model, becomes a gourmet cook, and finally loses his grand expectations for himself, shedding his guilt and self-pity in the process. Reinhart has been called one of the most original heroes in American fiction because he embodies so many aspects of the American character in his journey through confusion and despair and because he maintains his integrity and humanity in an increasingly materialistic, nihilistic world. A good-hearted man in a corrupt society, he is a victim of his virtues.
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