Love Letters from Prussia

The impact that German literature had on literature as a whole cannot be denied. It has a vast and lush tapestry that covers different literary genres, from poetry to children’s literature to prose to short stories to plays. Its long and rich tradition extends back as far as the Medieval period but started gaining global recognition in the nineteenth century with the rise of literary movements such as German Classicism, Romanticism, Biedermeier and Vormärz, Realism and Naturalism. Unfortunately, the two world wars, coupled with the rise of English as a universal medium, have adversely impacted the continued growth of German literature; the interest in German literature started to wane.

And like a phoenix rising from the flames, the interest in German literature again picked up post-war. Behind the rise of prominent names such as Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Heinrich Böll, Nelly Sachs, and Günter Grass, German literature was again gaining momentum. These writers have gifted the world with some of the most memorable titles such as Grass’ The Tin Drum, Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and Hesse’s Siddhartha. The depth of their individual oeuvre has also earned them recognition from the Swedish Academy, with each writer awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, touted as the most prestigious literary prize out there and the pinnacle of a literary career. Other prominent titles include Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, and  Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Another prominent name in the German literary scene is Bernhard Schlink. He is a multi-disciplinarian who didn’t initially start in literature. Rather, he first worked as an academician, first as a scientific assistant, then as a law professor in prominent German universities. He also worked as a judge at the constitutional court of North Rhine-Westphalia from 1987 to 2006 and was even an advisor to the draft constitution of the Central Round Table of the GDR during the post-reunification period. His first foray into a literary career commenced with a string of detective novels that featured Selb, a play on the German word for “self”, as the main character. His greatest breakthrough, however, came in 1995, with the publication of Der Vorleser which was later translated to English as The Reader (1995). It won several accolades and was even adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 2008.

“I see you running, in a field-gray uniform, the ridiculous spiked helmet with the field-gray cover, the knapsack on your back, and the rifle with the fixed bayonet in your hand. The knapsack is gray too, and so are your face and hands – so are the grass and the trees, so is the sky, everything is gray. Going up a slope, you run and fall and get up and keep running, and I don’t know whether you fall because you stumble or because you’ve been hit, and whether you keep running because you’re back on your feet or although you’re already dead.”

~ Bernhard Schlink, Olga

With the success of The Reader, Schlink’s rise to global prominence was remarkable as his works kept on earning him accolades from various parts of the world. In 2018, he published his most recent novel, Olga. In 2020, it was made available to the anglophone world rendered by the translation of Charlotte Collins. A work of historical fiction, Olga transports the readers to the turn of the 20th century. We meet the titular Olga Rinke in her hometown near Breslau. “A small, silent girl”, she lost her parents in succession, leaving her to the mercy of their neighbors. It was at this point that her grandmother popped out of the blue and took her grandchild, without much of a preamble, with her to Pomerania. She was an aloof woman who was against her daughter’s marriage, hence, her prolonged absence in her granddaughter’s life.

Growing up in the folds of her grandmother, Olga had to learn how to till the land. At a young age, she had to learn the responsibilities of being an adult. It was while carrying out her responsibilities that Olga started forming her dreams. She dreamt of stepping out of the quagmires of poverty. She aspired to be a teacher. But it was not only her humble background that she must overcome as she also had to go against the norms and prejudices of the period she grew up in. It was also inculcated into her, at a young age, what women’s fate is, especially those of her station. For the young Olga, formal education is out of the equation. The odds were stacked against Olga’s favor.

These odds, however, were no match for Olga’s steel nerves. With an indomitable and resilient spirit, she taught herself how to read. She would often spend her free time reading books in the forest. These qualities,, amplified by her intelligence and innate curiosity, were integral in rising up against the prejudices of her time. Her persistence soon paid off as she was able to earn a place at a local teacher training college. As the story advanced, we see Olga slowly but surely taking control of her life and steering it in the direction she wanted to. She became a teacher, started forming adult friendships, and became more involved in school and local activities. She was reaping the benefits of her hard work as she started living more comfortably.

Olga’s story encapsulated the story of women of her time, the story of women who had to endure not only the prejudices of society but also being forced to live a life underneath what they are capable of. Providing layers to Olga’s story was Herbert Schröder, her childhood friend with whom she would form a special bond. The son of the richest man in the village, Herbert was Olga’s antithesis. He was adventurous and refused to stay rooted to a place. The story was riddled with several displays of his self-centered qualities. Olga, nevertheless, loved him; this was notwithstanding the fact that Herbert’s family was against the couple’s love affair. She remained faithful to him even though he was peripatetic. Both Olga and Herbert were passionate albeit they were driven by starkly different reasons.

“She wasn’t communing with her dead among these strangers’ graves. She liked to walk through cemeteries because everyone was equal here: the powerful and the weak, the poor and the rich, the loved and the neglected, those who had been successful and those who had failed. A mausoleum, an angel statue, or a tombstone didn’t change any of that. All were equally dead, no one could or wanted to be grand anymore, and too grand wasn’t even a concept.”

~ Bernhard Schlink, Olga

The romance story between the two contrasting characters provided the emotional backbone of the story. Olga’s faithfulness to Herbert despite his prolonged absence provided a contrasting portrait of the young woman who, with sheer grit and determination, was able to rise above the disadvantages hurled her way. In capturing the love story between the two characters, Schlink deviated from writing conventions as he used an epistolary structure. This literary device was employed in the last of the book’s three parts. It was also in the book’s third part that Olga’s voice commanded the story; the first two parts were related by an omniscient character. Olga’s letters not only captured their love story but also provided an intimate portrait of their psychological profile. It further magnified the glaring contrasts between the two characters.

Beyond the overtones of romance, Olga was, at its heart, a work of historical fiction. Schlink captured the attitude toward women; in a way, Olga’s story resonated with the rise of feminism. But while Olga represented feminism, Herbert was the symbol of one of the darker parts of Germany’s history: its colonialist past. Herbert shared aspirations of glory and greatness. He even served a tour of duty in South West Africa where Germany was slowly building up its presence. This experience further lit up in him a desire to explore other parts of the world. Historical contexts were subtly and wisely interjected into the story.

Schlink did a stellar job of providing a glimpse into Germany’s recent past while, at the same time, providing an overview of the ideologies during the time period from a German point-of-view. He was able to swiftly probe the darker shades of his nation’s modern history with objectivity, capturing the grim portraits with neither justification nor vilification. Beyond his nation’s colonial aspirations slathered all over the story, Schlink intersected the story with seminal events, including the Herero genocide that took place from 1904 to 1908 in German South West Africa, the country’s role in both the first and second world wars, the student radicalism, and the reunification of East Germany and West Germany.

The story’s biggest achievement, however, was its characterization of Olga. She was an interesting and magnificent character who easily stood out. Her passion, indomitable resolve, and her faithfulness held the story together. Her drive and resolve were admirable. She also possessed deep wisdom. She loved with a passion but she was also cognizant of her limits and when to let go. Loving someone passionately entails huge risks but it takes an even greater amount of courage to walk away from this kind of love when your beliefs and ideologies run opposite to the beliefs and ideologies of the person you love. Some can say that love can conquer all but love also comes with its inherent limitations.

“They should lie together, and remind us that we are equal in death as in life. Death lost its horror if it were no longer the cruel leveller at the end of a life of inequality, privilege and disadvantage, but simply the continuation of a life in which we were all equal.”

~ Bernhard Schlink, Olga

As he has demonstrated in his world-renowned work, Schlink is a masterful and enchanting storyteller. This was also palpable in Olga, another testament to the powers of a writer. His writing and storytelling held all of the book’s finer elements together. The prose flowed with his lyrical writing which captured the vivid portrait of the characters and of the landscape upon which they were juxtaposed. His writing was most affectionate and strongest when writing about Olga. The intimate contours of her interiors were captured vividly by Schlink. However, these moments of brilliance came few and far in between as the book’s preoccupation with Herbert and his misadventures take the readers’ attention away from Olga. The story’s predictability also weighed down on the story. The “big revelations” were given away early and when the moment of reckoning came, their impact has been diminished.

Beyond its slanders, Olga was an engaging read. In his most recent novel, renowned German writer Bernhard Schlink captured the poignant portrait of a woman with progressive ideas. A fantastic creation of literature, Olga Rinke was beyond her time. Her story represented the story of women of her time, of women who were forced by society’s prejudices to live below what they were capable of. But Olga broke through those barriers and made a name for herself, despite of and in spite of the obstacles that held her and keep holding her back. But beyond her steely resolve is a woman who was also capable of loving fiercely and unconditionally. Her story was juxtaposed with the tumultuous modern history of Germany which provided more texture to the story. For the book’s flaws, Schlink’s writing remained impeccable.



Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 
Writing (25%) – 
Overall Impact (15%) – 

German writer Bernhard Schlink is one of many writers who are part of my long list of reading prospects. I first came to know about him through his popular book, The Reader. The book, unsurprisingly, is ubiquitous, thus, immediately piquing my interest. However, it was a different work by Schlink that I was able to obtain, Olga, which also happened to be his latest novel. Due to my growing curiosity about Schlink’s – who I learned was a lawyer as well – prose, I made Olga a part of my foray into European literature last May 2022. Sure enough, I was immediately drawn into the story of Olga. She was a captivating character and Schlink must be credited for creating a psychologically complex and fantastic character. But while she was a strong character, Herbert was the opposite. This imbalance adversely impacted my appreciation of the story. The foreshadowing in the earlier parts of the book also gave away what the epistolary part had to share. What was meant to be a cathartic moment was never fully achieved. It was still a good book, good but not particularly exceptional. This, however, is not stopping me from wanting to read his magnum opus, The Reader.

Book Specs

Author: Bernhard Schlink
Translator (from German): Charlotte Collins
Publisher: HarperVia
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 269
Genre: Historical, Romance


Orphaned at an early age, Olga lives with her grandmother in a small Prussian village. Unloved by her grandmother and different from the local children, Olga grows up a lonely soul – until she meets Herbert. The son of a local aristocrat, Herbert is different, too: a dreamer. Olga is quickly drawn to his adventurous spirit.

Though hindered by her modest means, Olga is determined to become a teacher – and succeeds. Herbert decides to join the army and volunteers to go to German South West Africa – now Namibia – where he falls in love with the grand, empty expanse of the desert. But he also participates in the brutal war against the Herero, and as Olga reads his letters, her view of him darkens. Then one day Herbert embarks on a quixotic mission into the Arctic, and Olga’s loyalty is put to the test.

By the end of World War II, Olga’s life has seen irreversible changes. She starts a new life in the West, making her living as a seamstress. That’s how Olga befriends Ferdinand, a young boy who loves her attention and her quirks. In his adulthood, Ferdinand will find a cache of Olga’s letters that reveal the secrets she had hidden from him – and everyone.

Seamlessly shifting between different viewpoints and forms, Olga tells the story of a woman, who like many of her generation, is forced to live below her capacities – next to men who live above theirs. Yet Olga manages to cope with the hardships of her era with strength, dignity, and courage. And she loves against all odds: passionately, desperately, wisely.

About the Author

Bernhard Schlink was born on July 6, 1944, in Großdornberg near Bielefeld, Germany. His family moved to Heidelberg when his father took a post as a professor of dogmatic and ecumenical theology at Heidelberg University. Schlink studied law at the University of Heidelberg and at the Free University of Berlin. He graduated from the latter in 1968. He also earned a doctorate in law.

Schlink took the scenic route toward a career in literature. Post-university, he worked as a scientific assistant at the Universities of Darmstadt, Bielefeld, and Freiburg. He had been a law professor at the University of Bonn and Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt am Main. In 1992, he started teaching law at Humboldt University of Berlin. From 1987 until 2006 he was also a judge at the constitutional court of North Rhine-Westphalia. During the post-reunification period, he was an advisor to the draft constitution of the Central Round Table of the GDR.

Schlink’s foray into literature began in 1987 with the publication of his first novel Selbs Justiz (Self’s Punishment). It is a work of detective fiction he wrote with Walter Popp. It was succeeded by more works of detective fiction that starred Selb, a play on the German word for “self”. One of these books, Die gordische Schleife (The Gordian Knot), won the Friedrich-Glauser-Preis in 1989. Selbs Betrug (1992) won the 1993 Deutscher Krimi Preis. Schlink’s biggest breakthrough came in 1995, with the publication of Der Vorleser (The Reader). It won several awards including the 1997 Grinzane Cavour Prize (Italian), 1997 Prix Laure Bataillon (French), 1998 Hans Fallada Prize, and 2000 Evangelischer Buchpreis. The book was also adapted into a film in 2008.

His other novels include Liebesfluchten (2000, Flights of Love), Selbs Mord (2001, Self’s Murder), Die Heimkehr (2006, Homecoming), and Die Frau auf der Treppe (2014, The Woman on the Stairs). His latest novel, Olga, was published in 2018. Schlink has also published a collection of short stories and essays. His works have earned him several accolades such as the 1999 Welt-Literaturpreis, 2000 Heinrich Heine Prize of the “Heinrich-Heine-Gesellschaft” at Hamburg, and 2014 Park Kyong-ni Prize (South Korea). In 2004, he was awarded with an Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Schlink is currently dividing his time between New York City and Berlin.