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Walter Abish: How German Is It

How German Is It is Abish’s best-known novel and the one that sold the most and won the award. It is set in the fictitious town of Brumholdstein, named after the fictitious philosopher, Brumhold, who refuses to visit the town named after him but carries on living in his hut in the forest. The main characters are two brothers, Ulrich and Helmuth Hargenau, whose father was killed for opposing Hitler. The two represent two sides of Germany. Helmuth is the good bourgeois German, an architect who has helped design the new town. Ulrich is a novelist, recently returned to Brumholdstein from Paris. Much of the novel is a series of sketches of individual inhabitants of the city but there are two key plot elements. Firstly, the new city is built on Durst, a former concentration camp. Secondly, Ulrich’s ex-wife, Paula, is a terrorist. Of course, building the new town on the old camp is a clear indication of Germany’s burying of its past. Indeed, as the narrator points out, there is not even a book about Durst. And while Helmuth is busy building and controlling, Paula’s group is trying to destroy what he builds. But this is Abish, a modernist, and his rapid cutting approach, jumping in and out of the plot, showing the violence and the new Germany as he sees it, is what makes this novel distinctive. But how German is it?

Publishing history

First published 1980 by New Directions