How German Writers Fare vs. Clancy, Crichton, and Grisham

Article excerpt

For browsers in European bookstores, particularly German ones, translations of fiction, whether from English or "from the American," seem as ubiquitous in the bookshop windows as Microsoft and McDonald's are elsewhere in the shopping districts. The evidence of Anglo-American cultural hegemony is overwhelming.

'Where are the German storytellers?' is the cry that echoes through the land of Goethe and Schiller. Is not a country's native literary culture something that should be at least partially exempt from the globalization evident in the mass merchandising of software or fast food?

This long-running discussion continues - amid signs, however, that German storytellers are alive and well, and scoring some big literary and commercial successes. Uwe Wittstock, an editor at S. Fischer Verlag in Frankfurt, and hitherto rather skeptical of contemporary German writers' ability to connect with the reading public, says, "The situation has changed in the last couple of years. We've had some notable successes with authors whose works combine both literary merit and entertainment - two qualities which have been seen as mutually exclusive until recently." One example he cites from his company's list is Josef Haslinger's novel "Opernball," premised on a (fictional) terrorist attack on the Opera Ball, the premier social event each year in Vienna. "He writes like John Grisham, but with the engagement of a Jean-Paul Sartre." Another is Michael Wildenhain's novel, "Erste Liebe, Deutscher Herbst," or "First Love, German Autumn." The particular autumn referred to is that of 1977, when Germany endured a spate of terrorist violence at the hands of the Red Army Faction. "He tells the story of a schoolboy who falls in love with a young woman involved in a terrorist group, and gets involved himself," Mr. Wittstock says. But the political story "is in the background," he adds, "the book itself is a love story." The traditional knock against German writers has been that they are often so serious, so political, and so full of Angst and gloom that they just haven't found much public acceptance. Wittstock sees German authors "learning from American models - John Updike, Philip Roth. …