“History is not the past as it really was. It’s the shape we give it.” This observation by a Norwegian antiquarian in Bernhard Schlink’s latest novel Olga may well be a mission statement for the whole book. In Olga, Schlink provides a history of Germany in the Twentieth Century through the eyes of a woman and later the man who becomes obsessed with her life. But he also provides a nuanced “history” of Olga herself. A view that looks like one thing and then, after a series of letters is discovered, changes shape.
Olga Rinke was born in Poland at the end of the Nineteenth Century. When her parents die she is sent to live with her grandparents in Prussia. It is there that she strikes up a relationship with the two children of the local aristocracy – Herbert and his sister Viktoria. Olga ends up in a relationship with the peripatetic Herbert. Unable to stay still, Herbert goes to German East Africa and then to various other places around the world before determining to conquer the North Pole, a venture that will prove tragic. Adrift, Olga floats through the first half of the twentieth century, ending up after the Second World War as a housekeeper and developing a friendship with a young man called Ferdinand. Ferdinand takes up the story when it moves into the 1970s and finds himself tracking down evidence from Olga’s past, ultimately providing a very different view of her life to the one that had already been told.
While this is Olga’s story it is also the story of Germany in the Twentieth Century. Schlink deals with German colonialism in the early twentieth century, the waste of the first world war, the aggression of the second, all the way through to reunification. For his critique, Schlink uses Olga’s perspective and voice, for example her disappointment with the voraciousness of the German vision: … “everything is too grand with [the Nazis], and where things are too grand, castles in the air are never far away.”
So that while the history of Germany is somewhat in the background of this book, it is also in some ways its main concern. Schlink is often more interested in what his characters do and what they experience and how they respond to the buffeting of the winds of change, than in who they are. Even with this caveat, Schlink still delivers a fascinating view of history that he then is able to subvert through the final section of the novel.