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Christoph Hein

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To purchase Willenbrock

Title: Willenbrock
Author: Christoph Hein
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 319 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Willenbrock - US
. Willenbrock - UK
. Willenbrock - Canada
. Willenbrock - France
. Willenbrock - Deutschland
  • Translated by Philip Boehm
  • The original German title was also: Willenbrock
  • Willenbrock was made into a film in 2005, directed by Andreas Dresen and starring Axel Prahl as Willenbrock

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Our Assessment:

B+ : Well-written novel of the uneasiness of life in reunified Germany

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 12/4/2000 Lothar Müller
FAZ . 8/7/2000 .
Freitag A 23/6/2000 Lothar Baier
Le Monde A 16/3/2001 Pierre Lepape
Neue Zürcher Zeitung C 6/7/2000 Dorothea Dieckmann
Der Spiegel B 19/6/2000 Volker Hage
TLS . 13/10/2000 Peter Graves
Die Welt B 24/6/2000 Uwe Wittstock
World Lit. Today . Winter/2001 Gregory H. Wolf

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus. All think it an important subject to tackle, but they disagree whether Hein does a good job of it. Aspects of Hein's style are also consistently criticized -- the presentation too simple, the writing in part clumsy (though all also note successful passages).

  From the Reviews:
  • "Hätte er es sich dabeileicht gemacht, es wäre eine moralische Erzählung, ein willkommenes Plädoyergegen hysterische Ängste samt probater Warnung vor der Dämonisierung des Ostensdabei herausgekommen. Aber Christoph Hein gestattet es sich, seine Ängste alsbegründet darzustellen. Seine Russen sind wie seine Taxifahrer: Klischees, denener eine psychologische Erzählung abgewinnt." - Lothar Müller, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Christoph Heins Willenbrock ist inerster Linie ein Buch über die Deutschen. (...) Christoph Heins Roman, so durchsetzt er ist von den Spuren geschichtlichen Geschehens im letzten Halbjahrhundert, transzendiert am Ende alles konkret Politische in Richtung auf die Gebrechlichkeit von Mensch und Welt, wie Kleist das genannt haben würde." - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Ein Zusammentreffen realer wie fiktiver Bedrohungen genügt, um eine explosive kritische Masse hervorzubringen, der dann das verinnerlichte Beziehungsgeflecht der Zivilisation zum Opfer zu fallen droht. In der erzählerisch außerordentlich gelungenen Ausgestaltung dieser Möglichkeit liegt die eminent politische Bedeutung des neuen Romans von Christoph Hein. Es geht nicht mehr um Deutschland mit seinen Ost-West-Verwerfungen, es geht um Verwerfungen innerhalb der gesamten westlichen Zivilisation." - Lothar Baier, Freitag

  • "Christoph Hein a créé un personnage inoubliable ; une sorte d'antihéros exemplaire parce qu'il semble avoir renoncé à toute forme de résistance sociale et morale pour se fondre dans l'anonymat collectif et goûter aux fruits de la grisaille." - Pierre Lepape, Le Monde

  • "Willenbrock ist ein Roman, der enttäuscht, weil man die Absicht spürt, die er verfehlt: das Psychogramm eines Gefährdeten in einer gefährlichen Welt. Die Zwischenwelt, die der alltäglich-sinistre Schauplatz am Stadtrand verkörpert, kann mit einem derart saturierten Schreibbewusstsein nicht für die Darstellung unserer Zerbrechlichkeit geöffnet werden." - Dorothea Dieckmann, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Ein großer Auftritt: Doch leider hat das zugkräftige Sujet den Erzähler zu formalen Nachlässigkeiten verführt, die das Vergnügen an dem Romanreport über die Zustände in Deutschland-Ost trüben. (...) Willenbrock wirkt passagenweise wie eine Rohfassung. Fast unbeholfen schreitet die Prosa von Datum zu Datum voran." - Volker Hage, Der Spiegel

  • "Hein's writing has always had a compulsive quality to it, and this latest work is no exception, although, uncharacteristically for such a normally disciplined author, the narrative seems at times to be lulled by its own steady flow into making some rather pointless digressions" - Peter Graves, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Ein Buch, dessen Verdienste sicher nicht in seinen künstlerischen oder sprachartistischen Qualitäten liegen, sondern zu aller erst in seinem zeitdiagnostischen Scharfblick und seiner dokumentarischen Kraft." - Uwe Wittstock, Die Welt

  • "Despite the novel's shortcomings (the failure to explore in greater depth Bernd's relationship with his former colleagues and to develop his and later his wife Susanne's infidelity, the often excessive detail and time devoted to peripheral matters, the stereotyping and exaggeration), Hein portrays how violence and victimization lead to an insensitivity toward crime and shows the personal suffering resulting from it. He diagnoses a problem that looms increasingly larger in Germany, and one with which Germans must deal." - Gregory H. Wolf, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Bernd Willenbrock, the central figure in this eponymous novel, is a man from the former GDR (East Germany) who seems to have adjusted well to life in reunified Germany after the fall of the wall. After a time of some uncertainty he settled down and became a successful used-car salesman. He owns his own lot, and there appears to be an endless number of customers from the east -- Poland and Russia -- willing to buy cars from him.
       Willenbrock set up a small boutique in town for his wife to run, and they lead a comfortable life. Willenbrock has little trouble with his customers. When they are attractive younger women he flirts with them, and sometimes indulges in more. He enjoys his business, and even plans an expansion of the property, setting up a more modern building on the site.
       Despite appearances all is not entirely well -- which seems to surprise Willenbrock. Though he has established himself in this new world he can not loosen the lingering hold of the old. Former colleagues -- few of whom have done as well as him -- resurface, and he learns that a colleague was an informant whose denunciation of Willenbrock prevented him from travelling abroad, a betrayal that he finds difficult to get over, even though it no longer matters.
       Willenbrock's assistant is a Pole, Jurek, a constant reminder of the world to the east and a man who is himself torn apart by the new conditions. Working away from home his son becomes alienated and his wife fed up. Jurek provides for his family, making the sacrifice of living far away from them, but the family disintegrates, thankless and indifferent.
       Willenbrock is also confronted by a society in which the rules are less clear and violence more common. There are break-ins at his car lot. The first leads him to hire a nighttime security guard, but even that proves insufficient. Danger also hits closer to home when Willenbrock and his wife are robbed and attacked at their country house.
       Justice and law are no longer clear terms in the world Willenbrock inhabits. The police release the obviously guilty suspects who attacked him, deporting them (they are Russians) because it is too much of a bother to try to prosecute them. Crime itself is occasionally just a game -- as with the youngsters who broke into his car lot. Others tell stories of arrangements the Russian authorities and the Russian mob make with one another. One of Willenbrock's best customers is a Russian named Krylow, who offers to take care of Willenbrock's assailants himself.
       Willenbrock is also tempted to take the law into his own hands, buying first a starter's gun and then accepting a gun from Krylow. It is put to use, in another situation which remains outside the law, reinforcing the notion of everyman being a law unto himself in this ugly new world. Willenbrock feels, at the very least, ambivalent about this: he knows how to work within the set order but has trouble adapting to these ways. His conscience is troubled but conscience too no longer seems to count for much.
       In both German and English Willenbrock's name suggests a broken will, and his is slowly broken, despite his always trying to see the best in things. Willenbrock is a skillful businessman, aware of his limitations and his abilities. He is worldly, without trying to appear too worldly. The discovery that the world around him is, after all, out of his control frustrates him immensely.
       Hein presents his novel very straightforwardly, describing Willenbrock's fairly mundane life, and his small adventures (with women, mainly), small ambitions (the addition to his car lot), and small concerns (for his safety, and the safety of his business). It is an everyday life, and the novel is ultimately also of the tragedy of everyday life. Many of the concerns deal specifically with the uncertain situation in a newly reunified Germany, in the heart of Europe, threatened from within and without ("Asien. Alles wird Asien", one of the characters laments). Right and wrong are no longer clearly defined, with the character living according to their own codes: honourable Willenbrock, honourable and resigned Jurek, criminal Krylow, the pragmatic (and therefore indifferent) state authorities.
       Hein's novels tend to resonate deeply, despite their apparent simplicity. He writes very well and carefully and effectively builds up this story. Deceptively calm on the surface, the tensions in the novel are carefully revealed. There is no jarring sensation here, but rather the creeping horror of the mundane.
       A good effort, Willenbrock offers a convincing picture of part of modern German life. Recommended.

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Willenbrock: Reviews: Willenbrock - the film: Christoph Hein: Other books by Christoph Hein under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       (East) German author Christoph Hein was born in 1944. He has written several acclaimed novels and numerous plays.

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