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Uwe Johnson: Das dritte Buch über Achim (The Third Book about Achim)

Johnson is not an easy read and this book is no different but he is one of the few writers to write intelligently about East Germany-West Germany relations. This book is based on the real East German cyclist G A Schur and the first two books written about him were by a journalist, K Ullrich. In this novel, Karsch is a West German journalist who comes to East Germany to see his former girlfriend, an actress called Karin, who is now with Achim (the Schur persona – we never learn his last name, though it begins with T) and ends up writing the third book about him. Achim’s image is as the good East German hero and Karsch is interested in the fact that Achim receives both popular acclaim from the people (though the young might be starting to tire of him) as well as support from on high. However, when Karsch starts digging, he finds that Achim was in the Hitler Youth (unlike his father, who was anti-Hitler, and whom Achim nearly denounced) and even took part in an anti-Communist demonstration. But, despite the fact that Achim has a past and seems, at least on the outside, a stereotypical East German sports hero, Johnson is not writing an East-Germany-bad, West-Germany-good novel. Achim turns a blind eye to many of the faults of East Germany (and is quick to condemn the West) but it is apparent that neither side can claim to be superior and that both have defects. Johnson’s point is that there is too much misunderstanding between the two sides.

But Johnson has other interests. The book is one of changing perspectives. Though we see the writing of the biography through the eyes of Karsch and Achim, we get a variety of other aspects, both of the subjects in Karsch’s life but also the populace of East Germany, from the official publishing house to the young people Karsch meets who feel that Achim is no longer as interesting as he was. Johnson/Karsch experiments with different styles of biography – Karsch actually lays out some of the approaches he could take – and it is clear that he is interested in different perspectives on the same events and not just from the East West German angle. Johnson may be a difficult writer but he is one of the most rewarding writers to come from East Germany.

Publishing history

First published in German by Suhrkamp 1961
First published in English 1967 by Harcourt, Brace & World
Translated by Ursule Molinaro