Friday, 14 October 2011
Insanity in The Black Obelisk - Germany between the two world wars
I continue with the absolutely amazing Erich Maria Remarque and of course with the topic of war. Unlike A Time to Love and a Time to Die, which is set during WWII, The Black Obelisk examines the period between the two wars. Set in a small German town, the novel portrays a period of hyperinflation, disillusionment, post-war suffering, and rising of nationalism through the eyes of Ludwig, a naive post-war veteran trying to find his place in a greedy and insensitive world. More philosophical than descriptive, Remarque again denounces war and condemns its terror, brutality and senselessness.
War is terrible. On that there are no two opinions. We have had an enormous amount of literature, both fiction and non-fiction on the subject so we know how it affects people, how it awakens their most animal traits, and how it destroys compassion, love, and emotions. But what about the period between the two wars? How did Germany and its people recover from the disastrous defeat and what spirits and thoughts led to a even more disastrous war? Didn't Germans suffer enough? Didn't they learn their lesson from WWI or did they think the new nationalistic movement was going to restore Germany's fading glory? Remarque attempts to give us an answer in The Black Obelisk, where the insane, the disillusioned, the opportunistic, the impostors, the nationalists, the crippled, and the naive shape the richness of characters and moods in 1920s Germany.
Ludwig, like most of the men, is a post-war veteran trying to find another occupation and another life. Ironically, his destiny has brought him again close to death, working as an assistant in a funeral house. Proximity to death allows Ludwig to analyze people. How else would you know the true character of someone if you don't see him facing and handling death. Some cry, others get depressed, and third ones celebrate. But it is in the way we deal with it that our true character emerges. Through Ludwig's constant interactions Remarque gives an exhaustive portrait of the German population of that time. Hyperinflation has made the DEM invaluable. People receive money in the morning, which by the afternoon cost absolutely nothing. Poverty and desperation is everywhere. Suicide is sometimes the only choice. The ones that actually carried on their backs the WWI are suffering the most. Post-war veterans without legs, arms, and with terrible wounds are begging on the streets. The government does nothing. Nobody cares. It is just the way it is. Some of them are disillusioned and blame the war. Others long for the old military discipline, for the greatness of the German state, for the prosperity. These people are exactly the ones who turn to the nationalist movement, hoping it will eventually restore stability and bring Germany back to the world powers.
There are also the men who prosper. Opportunistic soulless people, who speculate with stocks, money, and people's lives. The exploite the system and become quickly (but as we see unstably) rich. They use ambiguous ways, they visit the trendiest restaurants, they are surrounded by pretty but shallow women. They are on top of the poor German state. But like everything in post-war Germany, this power is fleeting. One day you are rich and alive and the other day you are broke and disillusioned. It was hard surviving the war but at times it feels difficult actually living after the war. Remarque faces us with some of the ugliest human characteristics; he shows that even if human beings are primordially good, unfair and difficult life can turn them into beasts. They are not to be blamed; they are to be understood. Sometimes, though, it is difficult to read and accept the unfairness, the senselessness, and the dispair of the situation.
Ludwig doesn't belong to this world. He was just born in the wrong time, wrong place, wrong surroundings. He is sensitive, naive, and poetic. Even though he works for a funeral house, most probably the least compassionate place, in his free time he attempts to keep his soul. He is a poet, a teacher, a musician. Women take a great part of his life but unfortunately, they always leave him at the end. Understandably. Ludwig cannot survive and win in a world of power and greed. He looks at things and asks questions. He doubts religion, God, money, power, love, sanity. He doesn't conform to established rules, he has his own moral, and he attempts to defend it. However, in a world where people don't feel but steal, don't think but flow, don't love but hate, don't care but corrupt, he is lost. Ludwig's women search for money and stability. He can only offer them romance and tenderness. Not enough for the corrupted minds of the 1920s.
I can probably go on for pages about the war and its devastation effects. But no, I want to talk about love now. Yes, there is and there can be love even in post-war Germany. It is just not the typical sane love you might expect. It is actually strange, unusual, even confusing at times. You hate the person and you love him. At times you don't understand him but that makes you love him even more. I will say that this is my second favorite love story after Florentino and Fermina in Love in the Times of Cholera. Exactly because both loves stories are NOT what you expect them to be and NOT what the world says they should be. The times Ludwig lives in are insane; what is then more normal than to fall in love with an insane girl. Isabel is a patient at the asylum, where Ludwig sometimes work. She is several different people at ones; she has suffered a lot and she has chosen the path of multiple personalities to protect herself from the world. Ironically, she is more sane than the others. Isabel, although being a schizophrenic looks at the world objectively, criticizes unfairness, asks questions, and refuses to oblige to imposed norms and questionable morals. Her beauty is in the way she doubts everything, from the color of the grass to the singing of the birds. Insanity is all around; the biggest irony is that sometimes one finds sanity in the most insane places. In fact, insanity was the only way to survive in Germany. You had to be crazy, you had to be different, you had to be unusual in order to bear the terror and the brutality. You had to lose your mind to find a purpose and a sense in everything that was happening. Insanity protected Ludwig's love; insanity made him connect to Isabel even more. Sanity then ruined everything. Sanity took away passion and connection; sanity destroyed love.
The Black Obelisk is a difficult novel. Difficult to read, difficult to understand, difficult to bear. I must say, though, with all my heart that it is probably one of the best books I have read. I wasn't only reading; I was thinking, doubting, asking, revolting, feeling, crying, and loving. I questioned my own beliefs, I looked at my own morals, I changed my perspective towards love and war and sanity. Erich Maria Remarque creates his own philosophical world and takes us slowly without condemning or criticizing openly. He just gives the facts, presents the conversations, describes the characters. At the end though, you are left overwhelmed with many more questions about the purpose of it all. Whether it is love, life, war, compassion, or sanity.
Starting to read Remarque was probably one of the best decisions I have had lately. I know it is the right time now. A few years back I would have been too young. A few years later I will most probably be too cynical to appreciate it. But now I am exactly the person to read it. Emotional, sensitive, slightly insane, and trying to adapt to a world, where these qualities will make you anything but happy.