Browsing through the latest recommendations regarding literary delights through my beloved literary groups, a book really got my attention. It has an exciting title and a cover whose symbolism gradually reveals from be the lines. Not to mention the meaningful dualistic chromatic which tells us that, in this book, the details matter. Let us dive, therefore, into “The Journal of a German Doctor during WWII”.
About the author
As she introduces herself, Raluca Modreanu is a neurologist living with her family in Switzerland. She has been writing since childhood and during her years as a student of the University of Medicine in Bucharest, she was a member of the literary circle. The challenging medical career delayed the writer’s literary debut, thus leaving room for the sedimentation of the accumulated life experiences: the years of communism in Romania, the student period, the emigrant status in Spain and, later, in Germany and Switzerland.
About the book
From the first pages, we read in Dr. Siegmund Berg‘s diary his decision to leave Berlin, in 1939, implicitly giving up the possibility of building a notable career in medical research, in order to take care of his sick mother who lives in a village near Kiel, a German city. The moral obligation to look after his mother makes him feel the new status of being a doctor in a small provincial hospital, not as a choice, but as an assumed destiny. Siegmund had not known his father (who died in World War I) and had been raised only by his mother, along with an older brother, who became a lawyer and who understood to reward his mother’s efforts to provide him with an education, only from a financial perspective.
Through the diary, Siegmund introduces us to an ambitious Jew, Joseph, his only friend, an eminent student expelled in 1935 from the Faculty of Medicine, exclusively on ethnic grounds (let’s not forget, World War II knocks on the door and beliefs which will develop it, are already crystallized, producing effects). The summer of that year is the last one spent together by the two friends who are connected by a discreet way of living their own life and by their analytical spirit towards life (even if from different perspectives). For both of them, that summer will remain an invaluable memory of which they will always remember with love and nostalgia. Joseph, who comes from a wealthy Jewish family with a long tradition in medicine field, chooses to leave his family and his friend, without notifying them of his decision, and to run away from an unfair Germany which no longer can offer him a professional future. He did not conceive, at that time, that the stake was, in fact, much higher than his professional career – the stake was life itself.
When you think that the novel will have in the foreground the two existential plans that follow the evolution of the two characters, the philosophical references snatch you from the epic thread that was beginning to take shape, letting you see what will prove to be the essence of the book: the invitation addressed to the reader to reflect on life, on destinies shaped by the choices taken, on morality, on discrimination in its most subtle forms, on fairness etc. Far from having sterile and boring philosophical expositions, Raluca Modreanu approaches these issues in an extremely lively way, often in the form of pleasantly, alert and contradictory dialogues. References to Nietzsche and Sartre are made explicitly, and we find Aristotle in the metaphor of the acorn – the leitmotif of the book. Remember what I said about the cover?
The author builds strong characters (and I’m not talking only about the main ones), she studies and she analyzes them in terms of their relationship to moral principles, making us easily attach to those in whose values we find ourselves (and I must say that I felt the writer’s similar attachment). Thus, we will meet, among others, Herr Adler (Siegmund’s boss) and his talented daughter Greta, Hermann Wagner (young doctor, SS officer), Frieda (colossal character – Siegmund’s nurse colleague, presented as “friend, sister, mother, confidant and adviser”), Herr Muller (Siegmund’s eternal charismatic patient) and Monsieur Moulin, the two Eichel (father and son trying to reach Denmark, country that hadn’t had been occupied by the Germans at that time), Ulrike (a character whose existence changes destinies), Werner (the child with health problems who helps create emotional moments and whose health is a trigger in debating moral controversies). Last but not least, we’re being introduced to Christa, a journalist from Barcelona playing a karmic role. She writes her diary in 2005, a period in which the reader is transshipped, apparently in order to elucidate the events of the past – a special note for the remarkable beautiful turn of the action.
The surprise, however, comes from the fact that the characters intertwine, disappear (as the writer has antipathies as well as she has sympathies J) or overlap and only later you understand that you had been warned, along the story, by clues of the characters’ names or behavioral patterns. Or maybe the character is only one, reinvented over and over again, in an attempt to find his path. For, as the author herself admits, she likes to play with “discrete elements of surrealism and expressionism, making the borders between reality and fantasy hazy and allowing the reader to choose the version that fits them most (or contemplate both).” As for me, I chose contemplation, finding the ending irrelevant as long as the road is so captivating.
At the end of my literary journey, I found as being abrupt the transition to propaganda theory, which is analyzed in a cause-and-effect context, but I quickly understood the intention to emphasize its destructive potential and its reiteration as the central theme of the novel. I paraphrase here a part of the parable with humorous accents that explains the mechanism of propaganda, at the micro level: “I know from my deceased wife, God rest her soul, what this propaganda is all about. (…) And my wife, the old goat, seemed to know all that before our Führer did, and she used these tactics every time she wanted something from me.”
It can only be about pure talent if we consider that, in less than 200 pages, the writer encompasses a complex novel and approaches / defines in an original manner a variety of themes and concepts – discrimination, morality, justice, free will, predestination, loneliness, dignity, greed, friendship, sacrifice, parent-child relationship.
As you may have already become accustomed to, I will not give you any details about the events or the denouement, but because it is the month of love, I will reveal the fact that you will also live, along with the characters, a beautiful love story.
Raluca, you say that a writer will be remembered or not depending on if what he writes speaks or not to the reader; you have, therefore, a special place in my literary memory. I look forward to the publication of the novel you’re working on.
- „People need loud-mouth clowns more than they need a good heart.”
- „Innocence is the only reason we should fight.”
- „Fairness genuinely exists, so just pretending that there are no clear limits between fair and unfair, or that these are obsolete concepts, only allows us to keep acting unfairly.”
- „I think art can only reflect the present, even when it talks about the past. It’s like a screen-shot of the emotional echo that shadows the historical facts at a certain moment.”
- „People are very flexible when it comes to money: with their principles, their morals and their feelings. The more money they have, the more flexible they are willing to be.”
- „Whenever circumstances mean we find violence justified, even if we are talking about an act of justice, it’s only a sign that humanity still has flaws and that we are still not capable of overthrowing our animal side.”
- „You can reinvent yourself as many times as you wish before you find the path you want to go down.”
Read more book reviews in Romanian by the author on this Facebook page.