Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Book Review: The Black Obelisk

The Black Obelisk is certainly not Erich Maria Remarque's most famous work, nor is it his most widely read.  And while All Quiet On The Western Front continues to remain in print as a classic, I think The Black Obelisk is his best work.

I found my copy buried between the hundreds of old bodice rippers and second hand thrillers sent to service members in war zones as a part of the morale, welfare and recreation efforts back home.  As you can see by the photo, it's a rather beat up copy, so old in fact (Copyright 1957) that it's proclaimed to be "by the author of The Night in Lisbon".

I recognized the author and picked the book up, waiting my turn at the computers in the MWR hooch of our camp in Afghanistan.  I sat down to read and was immediately hooked.  In fact, I'm not sure I even found my way to a computer that evening.  I think I went straight back to my own hooch, curled up in my bed and read the book cover to cover.

And as soon as I finished reading it, I read it again.  It was that good.  Finished the last page and started from the first again.  I read it a couple more times on the plane ride home a couple of months later.  All in all, I've probably read it about a half a dozen times, putting it right up there as one of the books I've read the most.

But what's so special about it?  What made it that good that I've read it that many times, especially back to back?  Certainly being in a war zone with limited reading material contributed to that, but the book stands on its own merits nicely.  It's a fantastic read.

What did it for me was both the setting, and the characters' interaction with each other, which also largely derives from the setting.  It's set in 1920's Germany.  Inflation is a daily, even hourly sometimes, changing part of life.  It's chaotic, fabulous, tragic, and politically and emotionally charged.

The story is written in first person, and follows Ludwig Bodmer, a former German Army corporal and employee of Heinrich Kroll and Sons, a funeral monument maker.  Yes, that's right.  He makes tombstones for a living in impoverished 1920's Germany.

The characters are all colorful and interesting, as they finagle and con their way through their meager lives, but one of the more interesting parts of the story is the role inflation has on everything.  The way Remarque weaves the daily expanding inflation and its effects into their lives is simply amazing.  As a reader, you watch in awe as money that yesterday was enough to buy a tombstone, today is not enough to buy bread.  You see the way they use not only the barter system but also advance payments to make the money stretch further.

They're so embroiled in the sordid soap opera follies of their lives, that each day provides another twist to the complications they've largely brought on themselves.  Coupled with the fact that they are basically forced to take advantage of grieving loved ones after a death to simply make enough money to survive, it's almost too much.

Fortunately, they've got coupons.  Back when money was worth something, one of the local restaurants, in an attempt at advertising for more business, offered coupons for a free meal.  Ludwig and his friend and employer Georg Kroll have bought as many of these as they can, and now have a sizable stash.  Since inflation has basically turned money into worthless pieces of paper, the cost to buy one of these coupons, or a good meal would be enormous.  Needless to say, it's a horribly sore point with the restaurant owner, but they have the coupons and he must make good on them, essentially guaranteeing them a free meal any time they wish.

The book is such a compelling and fascinating look at the world of yesterday that I view it as a book everyone should read at least once in their lifetime.  It should be one of the books read in high school or college literature courses.  It should be in every bookstore in every English-speaking country in the world.

I was going to say that it should be in print.  I was going to lament the fact it wasn't available anywhere but possibly some out-of-the-way bookstore.  I was going to do that, but after checking Amazon one last time, what do you know, it is available!  This is a relatively new thing, too.  I checked not a few months ago and couldn't find it anywhere online.  At any rate, I'm very, very stoked to be able to point you to it in the hopes it will get a little more of the attention it deserves as one of the best pieces of classic literature ever written.  There, I've said it.  And I stand by it.  It is.  I highly recommend it.  And I might just have to order a brand new copy myself to replace the yellowed, dog-eared copy I found in the strangest of places.

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