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Uwe Johnson: Mutmassungen über Jakob (Speculations about Jakob)

This is a difficult book – all the experts say so – particularly for a first novel. Johnson uses various styles – monologue, dialogue, straight narration, official reports – to tell his tale and, to confuse the matter even more, slips in bits of English and Russian. It is not always clear who is talking about whom and the reader is left to work it out. However, the basic plot and the basic theme are both clear enough. The book starts with the death of Jakob Abs. Abs is killed by a train while crossing the tracks at a major railway junction. It is misty but Abs has worked there for sometime and knows his way around. What is not clear and never becomes clear is whether he was murdered, committed suicide or was killed accidentally (all three are, at some time, implied.)

The theme of the book is also clear – the murky relationship between East and West Germany. In hindsight, it is easy to condemn East Germany for being a totalitarian communist state that repressed its inhabitants. In the late 1950s, when this book was written, the picture was not so clear-cut. Jakob and his mother came to Jerichow at the end of the war and became close to Herr Cresspahl and his daughter Gesine. Indeed, Jakob loves Gesine and they have a close relationship. Gesine and Jakob’s mother have both, however, moved to West Germany (before the Wall was built). Jakob makes a risky journey to Frankfurt to see Gesine and Gesine makes a risky journey to Jerichow to see him. But when it is suggested that he stay permanently in the West, he declines. Jakob has strong socialist principles (he even reports his mother when she goes West), even though he has concerns about the implementation of those principles in East Germany, not least when Herr Rolfs tries to get him to persuade Gesine (who works for NATO) to spy for East Germany.

But it is the key East-West railway junction and the fog that hides Jakob from the train that kills him that symbolises what this novel is about. The question then was where are the two Germanies going – to the West (represented by the English-speaking side) or the East (represented by the Russian-speaking side). We now know the answer but then it was all in a fog.

Publishing history

First published in German by Suhrkamp 1959
First published in English 1963 by Grove Press