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Kaltenburg Hardcover – April 17, 2012

4.3 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

"This mesmerizing foray into postwar Germany by celebrated author Beyer is both a singularly researched work of historical fiction (with an ornithological bent), and a postmodern examination of the nature of memory.... Beyer paints an engrossing and terrifying picture of Dresden during the war and later under the Communist yoke. Yet it is Beyer’s complex interpolation of daily memories—sometimes fused or distorted in a Proustian vein—complete with highly detailed ornithological observations that give this work its exquisite flavor."
--Publishers Weekly, starred

"Challenging, beautifully written metafiction—to some extent based on the life of Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz—examines the workings of science and the nature of academic competition...Beyer ranges over the decades from Nazism to communism to a reunited Germany to reveal our ability both to remember and to recast unpleasant memories in a more favorable light, and to show what people must hide in order to survive."
--Library Journal

From the Inside Flap

"Challenging, beautifully written "--Library Journal

Hailed by The New Yorker as one of the best young novelists and recipient of Germany’s most prestigious literary awards, Marcel Beyer returns with a brilliantly wrought novel that brings to life both an individual and a whole world: the zoologist Ludwig Kaltenburg, loosely based on Nobel Prize–winner Konrad Lorenz, and his institute for research into animal behavior.

Hermann Funk first meets Kaltenburg when still a child in Posen in the 1930s. Hermann’s father, a botanist, and Kaltenburg are close friends, but a rift occurs. In 1945, fleeing the war, the Funks perish in the Dresden bombing, and Hermann finds his way to Kaltenburg’s newly established institute. He becomes Kaltenburg’s protégé, embracing the Institute’s unconventional methods. Yet parts of Kaltenburg’s past life remain unclear. Was he a member of the Nazi Party? Does he believe his discoveries about aggression in animals also apply to humans? Why has he erased the years in Posen from his official biography?

Through layers of memory and experience Hermann struggles to reconcile affection and doubt, to make sense of his childhood, even as he meets a woman with family secrets of her own.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (April 17, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151013977
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151013975
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,980,253 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is one of those instances in which my conscience forces me to award five stars to a book that I did not enjoy. You may have a different experience.

"Kaltenburg" is a novel partially based on the life of a famous Austrian biologist, Konrad Lorenz, a Nobel Prize winner who joined the Nazi party in the late 1930s, after the Nazis seized his native Austria. The novel views 'Kaltenburg' (a/k/a Lorenz) through the eyes of a fictional assistant, Hermann, a young man whose parents had been friends of Kaltenburg before they were killed in the WWII fire bombing of Dresden.

The novel chronicles Hermann's first meetings with Kaltenburg as a child in the Nazi era and his years as Kaltenburg's 20something research assistant during the brutal Communist tyranny in East Germany. Hermann clearly loves Kaltenburg as a replacement father. Kaltenburg is shown as an endearingly kind, absent-minded professor who is devoted to his hundreds of animals.

Both Hermann and the reader slowly become less admiring of Kaltenburg as they come to understand Kaltenburg's moral blind spots about his Nazi past and his current collaboration with the Communists.

The book is beautifully written, but others may enjoy it more than I did. I found the circuitous semi-Proustian style, in which the Hermann, the narrator, circles around the same memory three or four times, each time repeating it with additional or different details, before moving on to the next segment of the story, to be very annoying.

I kept wanting to yell,"Get to the point!" I found the hint-dropping and continuing ambiguity about key facts -- such as was Kaltenburg a real Nazi or merely someone who joined the Nazis to protect his professional standing? -- extremely irritating. You may find it engagingly subtle compared to many simplistic WWII, Holocaust and Cold War novels.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is the sort of novel that reminds me of assigned reading in high school. You know the book is written well, you can tell that it has lots of depth and connections to deeper ideas but it just does not captivate you. You keep reading, thinking sooner or later you will become immersed in the book, in the character and their dilemmas. For me, it did not happen.

As I was reading this book I kept wondering why it did not pull me in. Maybe it is the fact that the book is translated from German. Maybe it was the way it kept circling back to the same events. Maybe I am just not sophisticated enough to "get" the writing style.

But I kept reading. Because there is something enchanting about the novel as well. It is very different and subtle. Kaltenburg is gradually revealed as a very complex character, and not nearly as admirable of a human being as originally thought by Hermann.

I had to give it four stars, because I think it enriched me even though I did not really love reading it. Sort of like broccoli, not my favorite food but certainly good for me.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"Oh just a small bird - no special name" is Beyer's epigraph. From Nabokov's "Speak Memory", this line is spoken by a village schoolmaster, a firebrand revolutionary. Zherosekov's bird is no bird in particular. This novel is of birds in particular.

Beyer has written a fascinating and enjoyable novel. It is not pop fiction but an important new fiction that commandingly advances the art. Beyer is a poet, but he works both sides of the street. As a novelist, he avoids the kinds of writing poets not always do well in novels. He does not make all meaning turn on poetic choices of words and phrases that are so often beyond precise translation. I have not seen the German text, but it seems that a novel written in this painterly fashion is particularly well conserved by translation. The work is somewhat challenging for the reader because Beyer has made a challenging project.

Beyer reverses in all too obvious, and obviously intentioned fashion, the initials of his seemingly main character, Ludwig Kaltenburg, with his inspiring original, Konrad Lorenz. Kaltenburg is also the Cold Tower. A castle tower is a rook. A rook is a crow and crows are the first bird among all birds in Lorenz' ornithology. Well, not just any crow, but the white eyed jackdaw, clever, social, intelligent, curious and strutting, the second smallest of the corvids. So intelligent are these birds, so capable of distinguishing human faces, that Lorenz sometimes wore a devil costume to disguise himself from them.

Lorenz painted himself as a fervent, if pacifist Nazi. He was a medic in the war. This is not a novel about the war, or any sort of cheaply hidden judgment of Lorenz. This novel is of the tradition of novelists like Roth and a handful of other greats from the last century.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a political novel about Dresden and German history. It is also a novel about the life of an Austrian zoologist.
Ludwig Kaltenburg is reminiscent of Nobel winner Konrad Lorenz, but he is also different. There is a substantial difference in biography. LK lives in East Germany after the war, moves home to Austria only when the wall was built in 1961. KL, in real life, worked mostly in West Germany after release as p.o.w. in Russia. His vita lacks the GDR phase that is important in this novel.
(The novel also includes incognito appearances of animal filmer Heinz Sielmann and artist Joseph Beuys.)

Lorenz as well as Kaltenburg both wrote a controversial book about homo sapiens. LK's is called 'Angst', while KL wrote 'Aggression'. Not the same, but a clear parallel. I remember how excitedly anti-Lorenzian we were as left wing students in the 60s/70s. 'Aggression' seemed to us a confirmation that Lorenz was still the nazi that he had admittedly been for a while.

The book brings a shocker early on, in the 4th short chapter. The narrator tells us he saw how zoo-escaped chimpanzees in Dresden, after the fire bombing, participated in the work of moving human corpses out of the way. A strong picture, but clearly something that never happened. How an urban myth can become part of a person's memories.
Equally stark a later scene from the Dresden bombing. The boy, whose parents are lost in the fires, is bombarded by birds falling from the sky, burnt at flight in mid air. I have read no more gruesome descriptions of the Dresden bombing.

The narrator is a younger man, an assistant to LK during his time in Dresden. The narration happens a few years after Kaltenburg's death in 1989, which means it is also after the wall came down.
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