Magazine article World Literature Today

Unterleuten

Magazine article World Literature Today

Unterleuten

Article excerpt

Zeh. Unterleuten. Munich. Luchterhand Literaturverlag. 2016. 640 pages.

Germany fell in love with Unterleuten, and Juli Zeh's "great German novel" shot to the top of the fiction best-seller lists. It has stayed there, a popular success despite its hefty size. Or, perhaps because of it: it allows space for a dozen edgily characterized players to take the stage alternately- sometimes in first person, mostly as seen by the narrator. They grow familiar as we follow the winding plotlines, a little like a cast in a soap. The set is a village, Unterleuten ("among people"), that hides in among fir-tree forests on the sandy flatlands around Berlin. A backwater but a place where the villagers, like it or not, feel they belong-a "Heimat."

This is not a rural feel-good story, however. The author takes no prisoners: Zeh, an ex-UN human rights lawyer as well as a very good writer, is mercilessly observant and well informed, occasionally compassionate, and often witty. Zeh has been engaged in politics (the red-green variety), but here she acerbically dissects what happens to political ideas "at the grassroots level." The villagers in Unterleuten share generational memories of violations in the name of politics; staying below the radar is part of their way of life. Now, in 2010, a plan for a commercial wind farm is enough to trigger unrest: everyone knows that European Union directives can cause as much trouble as any communist or capitalist articles of faith. …

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