Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463
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 aware of the patterns of conforming behavior in herself and those around her—the “patterns of childhood” that are extraordinarily difficult to change, fear, hate, deception, duty, obedience, bondage to authority—the narrator is able to gain insight into the “ghastly secret of human beings in this century,” how one can be witness to such events and yet ignore them, to be there and yet not be there at the same time. When Bruno returned from captivity, he asked “What have they done to us[?]” It never occurred to him to ask himself what role he played in the disaster, how he was personally responsible for what happened.
The complex structure of the novel, with its nonlinear narration and tightly woven fabric of personal reminiscence, meditative essay, and factual evidence, reflects the seriousness of Wolf’s undertaking. Yet, no matter how honest one tries to be about one’s own life, there will always be distortion and falsehood. The “fantastic accuracy” that would occur if “the structure of experience” were to coincide with the “structure of the narrative” is an unreachable goal. Although the narrator wonders whether it is possible “to escape the mortal sin of our time, the desire not to come to grips with oneself,” in the end she affirms the beauty of change and dreams and declares, “I shall not revolt against the limits of the expressible.”