24.8.09

Helga Schneider - The Bonfire of Berlin


Rating 5.8

The climax of this book is basically built on a single peak moment: the young protagonist meeting Adolf Hitler in the Reich Chancellery bunker during the dark days of the so called Battle of Berlin.
One may say that, by writing this, I'm underrating the importance of The Bonfire of Berlin, but actually I do think this "hello-Adolf" moment is the main reason which led editors to publish this book.

Don't take me wrong. I was really interested in this story and particularly happy when I found it midprice. Then I literally devoured the 240 pages wrote by Helga Schneider. Yet sometimes quickness in reading is not to take as a good signal. I guess how most of the times people devour bestsellers, rather than brilliant and insightful books just to read what happens next. As for me, I read the "Da Vinci Code" in a single afternoon but I do think it's crap. Personally a slow reading is more involving and makes me wonder more about story, plot, characters and the message behind a book.

What disappointed me in this novel / memoir has very much to do with both: the writing style used by Helga Schneider and her attempt to write a self-biographical book largely based on her childhood experiences.

Chapter One: style.
I didn't understand why Schneider switches from present to a literary past tense (at least in the Italian edition) from chapter to chapter and even inside the same chapter without a logic. I mean it's not about flashbacks or reminiscences of the young Helga, it's just random.
Moreover, my impression is that the whole book was written in a rush, without caring that much of a re-reading process. I reckon how this aspect may be a quality, looking like a spontaneous impulse to tell a story long time kept by the author, but I didn't appreciated it as someone else did.
Schneider's language is very direct but oozes too much with victimism: basically young Helga was the only good and honest person to be found the collapsing Berlin, while everyone else behave like a beast, being selfish, arrogant, spoilt (i.e. her little brother, portrayed as a blond little creep) or double-dealing. And I found this vision somehow disturbing.

Chapter Two: autobiography.
One may wonder how is possible that fifty years later, Schneider is able to recall what she felt as a seven years old girl, reconstructing whole dialogues and situations with such accuracy. She never mentions about having a diary while living that awful experience and even if she tries to explain this precision with frequent references towards the end of the book to the importance of "looking around for remembering it all" I have some doubts about it. But I guess how this "power of memory" is a common problem while talking about autobiographic novels.

Given this, there are still many good reasons for reading this book, especially if you're interested in a different account of the final days of Germany in World War II seen (and felt) from the side of the defenceless population. But The Bonfire of Berlin is still very far from perfection and delivers a cold-hearted message: everyone deserved to be burned in the German bonfire apart from the innocent, abused narrator who found her way out of the flames.

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