‘Siegfried’ by Harry Mulisch

Siefried 

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 180 pages; 2004. Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent.

An elderly and celebrated Dutch author, Rudolph Herter, goes on a literary tour to Austria, taking his partner, Maria, with him. During a television interview promoting his latest novel, The Invention of Love, he offhandedly mentions that despite all the books and studies about Hitler humankind is no closer to understanding the Fuhrer and why he did what he did. “All those so-called explanations have simply made him more invisible,” says Herter. “Perhaps fiction is the net that he can be caught in.”

Later at a book signing, an elderly couple who survived the war, approach Herter with a story of their own to tell. Herter agrees to hear their tale, thinking that he may be able to use it as the basis for his next novel, which he has already decided should be about Hitler.

Over the course of an afternoon in their room at an old people’s home, the couple, Ullrich and Julia Falk, break the oath they once swore to Hitler and share their terrible secret with a gob-smacked Herter. Their story is so utterly astonishing that Herter soon realises that even the best fiction writers can never properly compete with the truth…

Sounds fascinating, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, if I say any more about the story it will spoil the plot. But let’s just say that it didn’t turn out to be the dramatic, page-turning tale I had expected.

Sure, Siegfried is a strange and beguiling novel, which deals with a lot of big themes. At its most basic level it pits fiction against fact and plays with the idea that truth is stranger than fiction. But it also attempts to explain the role of literature in helping us to comprehend the evils of the world around us. As a consequence the story gets bogged down in philosophy and navel gazing. Which is a shame, because there is a great story here dying to get out.

For me, personally, I would have loved this book to be more traditionally structured: to have a straightforward narrative that tells the Falk’s shocking tale from their viewpoint. (In fact, I would have taken Herter out of the story altogether. And yes, I realise this would mean the book would be totally different to the book that Harry Mulisch has created here. I rest my case.)

Instead, what we get is three not-very-seamless stories in one: Herter’s, the Falks’ and Eva Braun’s.

The pacing is not straightforward either, with the climax happening about half-way through, leaving the story that follows slightly weaker for it.

Still, if you like big, weighty themes, don’t mind the author philosophising and are fascinated by the love affair between Hitler and Eva Braun you might just find this novel more riveting than I did.

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5 thoughts on “‘Siegfried’ by Harry Mulisch

  1. I think I’d have difficulties with the cover. I just wouldn’t want to read a book which had Hitler staring at me every time I picked it up. I’d have to put a brown paper cover around it, just like we had to do with our school books!

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  2. David, tell me about it! Funnily enough I do all my reading at home these days seeing as I normally commute to work by bike at least four times a week, but last week I caught the tube two or three times and had this little number with me. On one occasion the bloke standing next to me kept looking at the book’s cover and then I spied him writing the name of the novel in his Crackberry, I assume for future reference and not to report me as a neo-nazi or anything. 😉

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  3. Just finished the book this afternoon. I’m not certain what my reaction is to it yet.
    But, yes, the cover: I wonder what people thought of that as I did my reading on the train.

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  4. I’m glad I’m not alone in feeling disappointed in this novel. I think Mulisch was trying a little too hard with this one, and Herter’s story as the main protagonist certainly wasn’t all that interesting. I am still puzzling about Herter: he is so alike Mulisch in his public persona/behaviour. I wonder if it was meant to be a caricature of how people often feel about him? Or if he was serious about his portrayal of Herter as this “big man”, which annoyed me to no end.

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