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Martin Walser is one of the most important contemporary German intellectuals; in 1998 he was awarded the Peace Prize established by the German Bookseller’s Association, his acceptance speech sparking the famous “Walser-Bubis” debate. He’s written about forty books in German, perhaps a third having been translated into English. Walser was born in 1927. He joined the Nazi party in 1944 and at the end of the war was serving in the Wehrmacht—-though he’s denied that he ever knowingly was a Nazi. His subsequent political career—-extensive——has been on the left; he opposed the Vietnam war, supported Willy Brandt, was at least close to the German Communist Party. More recently, he’s moved somewhat to the right. The “Walser-Bubis Debate,” a response to his Peace Prize acceptance speech, involved the charge by the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Ignatz Bubis, that Walser was guilty of “spiritual arson,” by his claim that Holocaust guilt had become “a moral stick” with which to beat the German people. More generally, it became a debate over the remembrance of the Holocaust and its role in the German national consciousness…a question that comes up in my review, though it was written years before the debate and appeared in The New York Times January 22, 1989, the year before German reunification.

NO MAN’S LAND By Martin Walser. Translated by Leila Vennewitz. 160 pp. New York: Henry Holt & Company. $18.95.

The border separating East and West Germany is no more rational than most of those in Africa – in the same way, it reflects neither culture nor geography, but only the whims and power of far-off lands. What can be done about it? Not much, probably. And so, as a practical matter, most Germans ignore their extraordinary national division; I always find it astonishing, for example, how many younger people have never been to Berlin, where the country’s former unity and current rupture are most clearly evident. But no matter how hard they try, Germans can never escape their peculiar situation. In the end, if only because of their language, they are compelled to identify with ”Germany” – but what exactly does this mean? Inevitably, the national division is reproduced within the self.

Or at least this is the case with Wolf, the protagonist of Martin Walser’s new novel, ”No Man’s Land.” The ”grotesque German-German polarization,” which others ignore, cuts him in two – a failed pianist, he still plays Schumann’s ”Novelettes,” but with only one hand. He sees alienation everywhere. On a train platform in Bonn, the travelers are an unwitting ”mass of half-people” whose other halves – like doppelgangers – are in Leipzig, Dresden or other cities in East Germany. ”They all shone with achievement, but not one of them seemed content. . . . And not one of them would say, if asked, that he lacked his Leipzig half, his Dresden part, his Mecklenburg extension.”

Wolf’s attempt to reconcile this false opposition is nothing if not ingenious – for he has become a spy, internalizing the division and turning himself into a personal bridge between the country’s separate halves. Born in East Germany, he’s moved to West Germany and married Dorle, who works in the Ministry of Defense. Through her, he meets the happily promiscuous Sylvia, whom he easily seduces to get various NATO protocols and details about the Stealth bomber. A neat solution. A German, spying for Germany on Germany, can scarcely be guilty of real betrayal. But Wolf is now uneasy. Dorle thinks they’re being watched. Worse, Wolf is growing suspicious of himself. He hates himself for betraying Dorle with Sylvia – but does he hate himself enough? Even his deeper motives come into question. Few others, after all, share his obsession – and so he begins to wonder if it’s authentic, or only an elaborate rationalization. Beyond this, there is the whole question of what a reunited Germany might be, how to imagine it. Every night, Wolf reads Schiller, trying to find out. But of course he knows that the Germany of Schiller can never be restored, just as the line in ”Deutschland Uber Alles” that runs ”From the Maas up to the Memel” can never be literally true again. The Memel (the Neman, as we would say today) is now firmly in the Soviet Union, and Wolf doesn’t really want it back. All he desires is ”to be allowed to regret the loss. To be allowed to say: how wonderful if we still had it!” But is the desire for a period of national mourning sufficient justification for what he’s doing? His doubts about the answer drive him to the story’s fascinating conclusion.

The foregoing reduces the novel to an argument, which is unfair – but not as unfair as it usually is, for the novel’s theme dominates every aspect of the writing. Known in English largely for such novels as ”The Swan Villa,” ”The Inner Man” and ”Letter to Lord Liszt,” Mr. Walser is also a playwright, and the book has the economy and intensity of theater. Setting and action are reduced to stage directions; even in narration, we hear the characters speaking, and the book is really a dramatic monologue inside Wolf’s, and Germany’s, psyche. But, ironically, it is almost a too-faithful reflection of Germany’s dilemma. For Mr. Walser’s novel about half-people living in a half-country offers us only half an explanation of their situation. Neither he nor Wolf confronts the other great chasm that cuts through the modern German consciousness, the gulf between past and present represented by the Nazis and the war. This is the fundamental break in German identity, after all, of which the current national division is only a subsidiary expression, and is the real crack in the mirror that most Germans cannot face. So it’s repressed. But as Mr. Walser says in the book’s first sentence, ”If you have something to hide you must do more than you yourself would consider necessary,” and that ”more” is always evidence of the repression. In this case, the repression returns in the novel’s tone, its stance, which ridicules Wolf’s yearnings even as it advances them – an abashed, defensive tone that contains a good deal of a very elemental feeling: embarrassment. How could we, the Germans, have done this to ourselves?

Wonderfully translated by Leila Vennewitz, ”No Man’s Land” is a curious and powerful novel by one of West Germany’s finest novelists. If you don’t know his work, this would make an excellent place to start.