Recently, while skimming through the library shelves, I came across a book that sounded interesting and unlike most fiction I have read. Per the dust jacket, it was a book that told the story of an ornithologist as he lived through World War II and the Cold War in Germany and West Germany. Now I was not sure how the study of birds would really play into the story of living through the wars, but I was intrigued. So me being me, I checked it out with about a million other books.
Now the story is told mostly as the remembrances of an old man as he is teaching someone young about a specific bird. Well rather, flashbacks of an old man as the story is told as if the moments are happening in the present. Yet these stories and memories are told because something prompted the old man to go back to that place and time. Frequently, this prompt has to do with something he is doing with regards to different birds. While I found this to be a bit discombobulating at first, as it was a bit tricky to track when/where/who at first, in the end I found this to be almost relaxing to read. There were no crazy grammatical tenses needed, simply a story was being told as if it was happening. Then, once we returned to the older version of the man, we were given some context and insight into the events. For me, this gave the book a much more realistic feel and almost that movie-style approach where the current fades out as the past acts out in front of our eyes. The flashbacks also didn’t feel forced or like the author was trying to put too much context into scenes as they were happening. I was left wondering what the real story behind events was, only to have it filled in for me after hearing the story from start to finish.
While the construction of the plot was novel (is that a pun? I think so…and if so I meant it emphatically), what really got me was the tone and pace. I struggled for a long time on how to describe both the tone and pace, and I finally settled on this: the book reads like the feeling of watching a lazy river flow. By this I mean, you are pulled along gently, never forced into the story. The way the words move across your mind is almost calming, even when the words form rather terrifying images. The pace rarely speeds up, and if so it only does so gently. There is no tossing about, no whitewater to navigate, no racing hearts to calm. In short, the book is a lazy river and you, the reader, are a raft gently floating downstream.
I realized about half way through the book that it was actually a translation from German. I have to say, it is an excellent translation. I have read some rather awful translations in my life, and it didn’t occur to me once (until the narrator broke down the informal/formal “you” in German) that it even could be a translation.
Simply put, this book is an excellent and worthy read. No matter the original language.
Love and literature,