An Invisible Country
Translated from the German by Stephen Lehmann
Foreword by Wendy Lesser
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Stephan Wackwitz's family "never spoke about the fact that the scene of their childhood and the site of the century's greatest crime were separated by nothing more than a longish walk and barely a decade." With insight and wit, Wackwitz breaks this silence in An Invisible Country, a learned meditation on twentieth-century German history as viewed through the prism of one family's story. Writing of his grandfather (born in 1893), his father (1922), and himself (1952), Wackwitz places himself in the historical and emotional landscape of the "invisible country" surrounding Anhalt in Upper Silesia, a town ten kilometers from Auschwitz, and the site of his grandfather's Lutheran pastorate from 1921 to 1933.
Three historical periods play off one another: the years of the grandfather's active manhood, up through World War II; his old age, bitter and disappointed, spent writing his memoirs, periodically confronted by a baffling and rebellious grandson; and the present, which finds the author—now working and writing in Poland himself—reflecting on his family's and his country's past, and on his own troubled relationship to that history as a young activist in postwar Germany.
The German edition carries the subtitle, Familienroman. By invoking Freud, Wackwitz suggests that the almost universal fantasy on the part of children to believe (for a time, at least) that they came from parents other than their own has particular significance for Germans of his generation.
"Novelist, essayist and director of the Goethe-Institut in Krakow, Poland, Wackwitz has crafted a profoundly intelligent memoir that offers a clear-eyed appraisal of his late grandfather, who served from 1921 until 1933 as pastor of a German Protestant congregation in the then Polish village of Anhalt, 10 kilometers from Auschwitz. Wackwitz tasks himself with looking 'behind and between the factual, tangible, and historically accountable events of my grandfather's life as told in his memoirs, in order to see its dream figures and phantoms, who have in turn haunted my own life.' Wackwitz brings into focus the complex figure of his grandfather, and without reducing him to a mere symptom of history, Wackwitz deconstructs the old man's unashamedly racist diatribes and defiantly right-wing posturing, and uncovers his intimate connections to Germany's unspeakable 20th century. With honesty and wit, he also weighs his own past in relation to his country's legacy, from his confused 1960s student radicalism, to a period of self-exile in Tokyo, the reading of philosophers whose works helped to liberate him from the self-satisfied authoritarianism of his grandfather's generation. Excising ghosts, analyzing the history of German-Polish relations, German colonial Africa and the impact of both world wars on his family, Wackwitz's personal study of his nation's dark heritage is a rare gem." —Publishers Weekly (starred review, 05/30/05)
"Stephan Wackwitz travels the path of classical modernity, following the footsteps of Walter Benjamin, W. G. Sebald, and their great archive of ars memoria." —Die Zeit
"This family story is biography, essay, reportage, and history all in one, and at the same time an autobiography of the first rank. An Invisible Country—a brilliant book." —Frankfurter Rundschau
"The tone of this book is one of subtle melancholy and, sometimes, of subtle mockery. What also emerges clearly is a confident and mature will to see things as they are." —Die Tageszeitung
"A beautiful and melancholy book, rich in substance." —Frankfurter Allgemeine
Stephan Wackwitz was born in Stuttgart in 1952. He joined the Goethe-Institute—Germany's cultural affairs organization—in 1986 and was posted in Frankfurt, New Delhi, Tokyo, Munich, Kraków, and now Bratislava, Slovakia. He is the author of two novels and an essay collection. An Invisible Country is his first book to appear in English.
Stephan Lehmann is a translator and the co-author of a recently published biography of the pianist Rudolf Serkin.
Wendy Lesser is the founding editor of the Threepenny Review and the author of six books of nonfiction. She has received fellowships and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy in Berlin, and the National Arts Journalism Program, among others.
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