The bestselling author and Berlin local discusses his novel, Olga, which travels through decades of modern history to ask: is it time to stop focussing on victims and villains?
Book editor Alex Wells called Schlink to celebrate Olga’s new translation into English.
Olga is this remarkable autodidact who witnesses decades of German history. How did you come up with the character?
I actually was first interested in Herbert. I was inspired by a real-life officer turned explorer named Herbert Schröder-Stranz. He was a young man who enrolled to join the war against the Herero in German Southwest Africa – now Namibia – and fell in love with the desert. He would eventually lead a poorly prepared expedition to the Arctic, the desert of snow and ice, which cost him his life. I was drawn to his longing for the emptiness of the desert, a kind of nihilism, which made young Germans rush to their deaths in World War I.
But then, I increasingly wondered what sort of woman might have loved and lived with such a man. So that’s how I got to Olga. She’s not modelled on one person, but in her lies a generation of women – of my grandmothers and aunts – who experienced similar things – women who had to live below their intellectual capabilities, often alongside men who lived above theirs.
There is this central contradiction in Olga’s character, that she loves a man like Herbert while having such different principles herself.
What Olga finds fascinating about Herbert, and what she loves in him, is how excited and exciting he is. He is spirited and joyful and lively and daring; he sets his sights high. That has a certain appeal for Olga, particularly because her own opportunities are so limited. The fact that there was a danger in it – a danger for Herbert and for others – was something she only came to terms with later.
Olga is no dissident, not even in the Nazi period. But she does still seem like a good person.
She has a clear vision – a sober view of an era in which many were drunk from the excitement of war, or drunk from the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933. She could question the masculinity of her time, and its developing nationalism.
Germans like to tell others what is right and wrong. I don’t like it.
Do you think Olga shows that not everyone in history is either victim or villain?
The division of people into victims and villains is ridiculously simplistic. Some people are both, and many people are neither victims nor villains: they are simply living their lives.
Was it important for the story to bring together many different eras of German history, from colonialism to the Nazis and beyond?
Yes. Olga even develops a little theory, which she connects with Heinrich Heine. She says that for so long the Germans – unlike their neighbours – could only have their own nation in fantasy. And then, once they finally got their Reich, they couldn’t stop fantasising. So, before World War I, they fantasised a colonial empire on which the sun never sets, and the Nazis fantasised an empire from the Atlantic to the Ural.
Olga’s other theory is that Germans always want everything to be too big and grand. She says this about Bismarck and the Nazis, but also about the postwar boom and the 1968 generation. Do you believe that yourself?
I do think there is a German tendency to think of things in grand terms. These days, this is not expressing itself through a wish to conquer or to dominate politically. But there is a tendency to feel morally superior. Germans like to tell others what is right and wrong. I don’t like it, but it is not creating any major damage.