Friday, 15 June 2018

Read in 2018 - 7: Alex

Almost half the year is over and I have not yet read 10 books - is that possible? Yes. I was not allowed reading for a while after my operation, and even now that I am allowed, I still find it relatively hard work and have not gotten back into the habit of reading for hours before lights out.

Still, I take advantage of train trips and waiting time at the station, and so I slowly but steadily made my way through "Alex" by Peter Oebel, a (highly autobiographical) book about the childhood and early youth of a boy growing up in 1950s Hamburg.

The reader is taken along a walk down memory lane - or should I say a skip, jump and run down memory staircase!

For the author, what he remembers of his childhood is closely related to the staircase in the house where he and his family lived back then on the top floor. The look and feel of the stairs' surfaces is described in much detail in the first chapter, and repeated in the last. In between, the staircase is a recurring theme, both in Alex' real life and in a nightmare he keeps having every now and then.

Actually, the book is not so much a continuous story but a collection of vignettes, each chapter offering a glimpse at one particular aspect of the author's life: school, his grandfather, the playground, the street and its shops, the greengrocer's, neighbours, his friends, holidays, visits to the cinema, and much more.

Sometimes bits that have already appeared in earlier chapters are repeated almost word for word later on, which made me wonder how much of this was deliberate and how much was lack of editing.

Still, the chapters do follow a loose chronological order, and as Alex learns and understands more about his family, life in general and his own place in the world, so does the reader.

There are few changes in the routine of schooldays and weekends, but some rather threatening changes loom on the horizon for a while, such as the possible breakup of his parents' marriage and the long-going illness of his mother (never really specified, but possibly depression and very obviously an addiction to certain pills).

And just like Alex never finds out all his family's secrets (why does his father keep hinting at something that would instantly land his grandfather in jail if he only said a word?) and struggles to find out more about the recent past (nobody talks about the war except for saying that they were "hard times" and people had to do all sorts of things in order to survive), the reader is never given more than hints, either.

Alex' life is not too bad; although his Dad works as a cook on freight ships and is away for months on end, his mother, grandparents, grown-up sister and her husband are there for him. He has a handful of good friends and a best friend. He knows and likes many of his neighbours. There is some pocket money from his parents as well as some extra when he helps out at the christmas tree sale; he can afford to go to the cinema and buy sweets on his way to school.

But there are things he does struggle with, not just the aforementioned family secrets and hushed-up wartime years. He is completely at odds with the entire school system, hating almost every minute of every day there, feeling trapped and blocked of all freedom, with only one teacher he likes. Also, he has a hard time trying to grasp the different teachings of his grandfather, who is a Jehovah's Witness, religious instructions at school and what is taught in biology lessons.

All things considered, Alex appears a pretty average boy, with his hearty dislike of rules and discipline and his tendency to do a little (harmless) mischief every now and then. But he thinks deeply about life and the world, and often seeks out places where he can be alone for some peace and quiet.

The book describes daily life in 1950s' Germany very well - I wasn't around then, but my parents were, so I am not totally unfamiliar with those times. What I did not like about the book is the rather verbose writing style of the author. Even when he uses direct speech, his characters (all based, I am sure, on the author's own family and friends) have a way to express themselves that is VERY unlike what you'd expect them to say in real life. That is especially true for when Alex himself is the one who does the talking - a boy of 8, 10 or 12 years certainly did not talk like that in the 1950s.

But I did enjoy the overall reading, even though the book could have been at least 1/3 shorter without losing anything important. It was (of course) a free ebook, and therefore I'll stop complaining right now :-)
(I have since found out that a shortened edition was published as well; I would have probably enjoyed that one more.)


  1. It is always interesting to read memoirs written at a certain time. Less interesting to hear peoples' memories, as these can become gilded or darkened by time. I do remember in 1960s Germany seeing a goose girl with a long plait and holding a stick, driving her geese. It was like something in a fairy tale so being a child at the time I slightly took it for granted :) but my mum confirmed we really saw it! :)

    1. Well into the 1960s, especially in rural areas here in Germany life was still rather basic for most people, so I am not surprised to hear about you having seen a goose girl!