Bernhard Schlink

W&N, £16.99

Review by Malcolm Forbes

In The Woman on the Stairs, Bernhard Schlink’s last novel to appear in English, a character proclaims: “Tragedies and comedies, good and bad luck, love and hate, joy and grief – history offers it all.” The German author’s finest books encompass these elements and more. History in his hands is the course of individual lives buffeted and broken by the cataclysms and upheavals of the 20th century. Along the way, Schlink brings his legal background to bear, exploring ethical quandaries, crises of conscience, culpability and guilt.

Schlink’s latest novel, Olga, continues this tradition and, for the most part, doesn’t disappoint. Beginning with the title character’s hardscrabble origins and following her trajectory through tumultuous years, we could be forgiven for thinking this is a standard, streamlined cradle-to-grave epic. However, the book – expertly translated by Charlotte Collins – comprises more than one tale, and unfolds through various perspectives and different modes of storytelling. It makes for a compelling reading experience.

Olga gets her first taste of abandonment and dislocation at an early age. When her parents die from typhus she is taken out of the big smoke and raised by her unfriendly grandmother in a small village in rural Pomerania. Unable to fit in, Olga finds solidarity in fellow loner and local aristocrat Herbert. She overlooks his militaristic and nationalistic Prussian ideals – his determination to “make Germany great” even if “it required him to be cruel to himself and to others” – and falls in love with him.

But soon the pair are pulled in opposite directions. Herbert volunteers for the colonial force in German South-West Africa and joins his countrymen in brutally suppressing restless natives. Olga educates herself to secure a place in teacher training college but has her ambitions dashed when she is transferred to a backwater in East Prussia at the behest of Herbert’s disapproving sister Viktoria. The couple continue their “field-and-forest love” in the gaps between Herbert’s many trips abroad, but their romance comes to an abrupt end in 1913 when he embarks on an ill-fated expedition to the Arctic and doesn’t return. Olga soldiers on, deriving comfort from her neighbours’ son Eik, until her life is disrupted again, first by Nazi misrule and then by world war.

At this point, the narrative breaks off. Schlink opens up a new strand by introducing Ferdinand, who recounts how Olga cared for him while working as a seamstress for his family in south-west Germany in the 1950s. A lasting friendship developed and he became her heir. His testimony is a vivid depiction of a stoic survivor, a resilient woman who learned that “life was a series of losses” but who accepted her lot and refused to be ground down by thwarted dreams.

A more rounded portrait emerges in the book’s final section made up of Olga’s heartfelt letters to Herbert – “my mad, lost, frozen, fallen husband”. Throughout them she expresses fervent hope and undying love. Some letters contain bombshells, others are filled with recriminations: “Last year you said you’d be back by Christmas,” she writes in 1914. “This year, the soldiers said they would. There’s no relying on you men.” Despite giving him up for dead, she continues to write into a void, commenting on the world he left behind and her increasingly uncertain place in it.

Schlink’s heroine is not as memorable as Hanna, the central female figure in his international bestseller The Reader. But Olga still makes her presence keenly felt, whether through her stark opposition to Herbert’s imperialist endeavours (“Africa wasn’t the fatherland. What business did he have there?”) or her unswerving ability to pick herself up and dust herself down after every hard knock. Schlink’s lucid, no-frills prose lends his novel immediacy, and at times potency, and gives us a character to root for.