Olga diagnoses Germany’s problem as one of grandness, which, she grumbles, is thanks to Bismarck. "Ever since he had seated Germany on a horse too big for it to ride, the Germans had wanted everything too grand." She sees it in the men whose lives she touches: her student Eik, who fantasises about the open steppes and joins the SS; Ferdinand’s student-y moral smugness in the 60s; and most of all, in Herbert. As a teenager, he decides to become an Übermensch, "that he would make Germany great and become great with Germany, even if it required him to be cruel to himself and to others".
Schlink pursues this theme perhaps a little relentlessly, but there’s a sophisticated precision to his writing, which is superbly translated by Charlotte Collins. And in Schlink’s macro look at Germany’s past, it’s the small acts – of kindness and humility – that linger.
This is not a straightforward elegy — and throughout the book, death is not an absolute end. Instead, Schlink frames the novel as a search for meaning, which dances in Olga between a multitude of timeframes and territories. This is painfully, perhaps most movingly portrayed in Herbert’s Arctic progress, which quickly is halted by natural forces, his ship lost in the ice. Olga reads a newspaper account of the mission, and sees that the “illustrator had done drawings from photographs, a few thin black lines that Olga thought looked like caricatures.
Schlink deals swiftly with Germany’s colonial aspirations in south-west Africa, the Herero genocide and its role in two world wars, while Olga’s life is related in careful, unadorned prose ... We guess the major reveals will come in the novel’s epistolary section. The letters confirm Olga’s stoicism, her love of simple pleasures and contain two secrets that, frustratingly, Schlink has already given away. Olga is a poignant portrait of a woman out of step with her time, but too predictable to truly satisfy.