Speculations About Jakob

by Uwe Johnson

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Critical Evaluation

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Uwe Johnson is counted among the most important German novelists in the period following World War II. In 1959, three German novels contributed to reestablishing German literature as world literature. The best known of these is Günter Grass’s Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1961), with its grotesque allegories. Billard um halbzehn (Billiards at Half-Past Nine, 1962), by Heinrich Böll, who later received the Nobel Prize in Literature, is the most traditional of these three novels. Speculations About Jakob stands out among them as the most experimental novel and the one that focuses on the East-West conflict rather than on the Nazi legacy.

Speculations About Jakob invites readers to form their own opinions based on the speculations they encounter among the book’s characters. Reader participation is required, which makes the novel challenging as well as rewarding. The information is presented in three distinct, although at times intertwined, modes: interior monologue, dialogue, and third-person narration. The interior monologues, which are by Rohlfs, Jonas, and Gesine, are scattered throughout the book, but they are easy to recognize because they are in italics. (In contrast to the German original, the English translation identifies the speaker at the beginning of each section of monologue.) The dialogues, also spread throughout the novel, are marked by dashes, while the contributions by the narrator, which provide the transitions and background information to hold the novel together, are regular text.

It has been pointed out that Johnson’s novel is not speculation itself; rather, it portrays speculation. The technique of flashback dominates the flow of the story, and the story line as it is summarized above unfolds in a fragmented manner within five main divisions covering a period of about one month. Each character describes Jakob in a different manner because Jakob means something different to each one; therefore, readers have to consider the issues of the individual characters’ reliability and their points of view in interpreting what they say.

Johnson’s narrative technique owes much to the experimental tradition of the twentieth century, especially to the American writer William Faulkner. Faulkner was a master of the abandonment of the omniscient narrator for the sake of multiperspectivism. On the level of vocabulary and syntax Johnson is also innovative; for instance, he mixes various kinds of idioms. Some of this, however, is lost in the translation. For example, Gesine tells Jonas about her love for Jakob in biblical language: A literal translation of the German is “It is my soul which loveth Jakob”; however, the translation of this line in the English edition reads prosaically, “I happen to love Jakob.”

The narrative structure of the novel is designed to challenge the reader to piece information together as a detective would. Some of the facts are not quite clear. Jerichow, for example, is Johnson’s invention, but it bears resemblances to cities in the actual German region of Mecklenburg. Real places, in contrast, are often only alluded to; the name of Dresden, for instance, is given only toward the end of the novel, with the implication that Jakob works there, but the description of the city does not match the actual Dresden. Furthermore, the name of the West German town where Gesine works is never given. In addition, the true nature of the love relationship between Gesine and Jakob does not become clear except in later works by Johnson. Also, the question of whether Jakob’s death was an accident or suicide remains unanswered. Readers are challenged to make sense of these and similar uncertainties.

All of this ties in with the novel’s overriding issues of identity and reality. Such issues...

(This entire section contains 1023 words.)

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were especially pressing during the Cold War in the divided Germany of the 1950’s. Germany provides a focal point for the conflict between these two social systems, as the country was divided into capitalist West Germany and Communist East Germany. Johnson, who left East Berlin for West Berlin on the day the manuscript ofSpeculations About Jakob was sent to its West German printer, has been called the writer of the two Germanies.

Characters are represented in terms of what the novel considers most important; there is no simple right or wrong in regard to the social systems. Gesine and Jakob’s love is complicated by their mutually exclusive decisions regarding systems. Their decisions are not easy: Just as Jakob struggles to make the Soviet intervention in Hungary fit into his value system, Gesine is disgusted by the military solution to the Suez Crisis by the West. As a consequence, she decides to quit her job with NATO.

The issues of problematic identity and reality also are addressed in the plot, which is in conflict with the demands of Socialist Realism, the typical elements of which include an idealistic communist (Rohlfs), a wavering intellectual (Jonas), a citizen who is seduced by the West (Gesine), and another citizen who resists this seduction (Jakob). Jakob, however, dies under mysterious circumstances, and the psychological approach to the novel’s issues runs counter to a party-line interpretation of the characters.

Interpretation of Speculations About Jakob, then, lies in understanding that there is no clear-cut truth; what is more, it has been argued that such an objective truth cannot exist in a country in which truth is a commodity and a construct of the propaganda machine. Consequently, Jakob’s death can be seen as symbolic of the political situation of the Cold War. Caught between the two social systems in West and East Germany, Jakob cannot develop or live his true identity and is therefore destroyed. It is not possible for an individual to find his or her own place somewhat independently, so to speak—one is either independent or one is not. Jakob is successful at cutting across the tracks of the social systems only for so long. The shocking insight that cutting across the tracks is ultimately impossible, although some people may do it for a short time, is expressed in the first sentence of the novel. Voicing disbelief at the news of Jakob’s death, it is one of the famous first sentences in German literature: “But Jakob always cut across the tracks.”