Born under the Third Reich, Uwe Johnson began this dense, bustling and surprisingly playful magnum opus in 1966, having left East Germany with his family for the United States; it wasn’t completed until 1983, a year before his death, by which time his marriage had broken down and he was living alone in the island town of Sheerness, in Kent.
Juxtaposing the tumult of 60s America with everyday life in Nazi Germany, Anniversaries chronicles 20th-century turmoil through the eyes of Gesine Cresspahl, who leaves postwar Mönchengladbach to raise her young daughter, Marie, on New York’s Upper West Side. In the original German, the book appeared in four parts over 13 years; an abridged English text came out in 1987, but only now can anglophone readers taste it uncut, in Damion Searls’ two-volume translation.
A series of conversations between Gesine and 10-year-old Marie, precociously hungry for tales of her mother’s childhood, it unfolds over 12 months, one chapter for every day from 21 August 1967 to 20 August 1968. As Gesine juggles work at a business bank with caring for her daughter, her bleak recollections – a mother left to die on Kristallnacht, a father tortured by the Soviets – are intercut with a narrative present of US race riots and mounting casualties in Vietnam.
Against the big-picture backdrop, we get a fine-grained treatment of motherhood and migration. Buying the New York Times every day and learning how to ride the subway without bumping into anyone are among the things that help Gesine fit into a neighbourhood that calls her “Gee-sign Crisspaw”, “the German”, the sight of whom – even to friends – evokes “fifty-five million dead, plus six million more victims of the death camps”. Part of the novel concerns what it’s like to raise a child in a foreign culture; Marie, to Gesine’s dismay, learns to repeat jibes about Native Americans and bridles at her teacher’s habit of pairing her with the only black girl in her class.
At the same time, Marie’s dawning political consciousness – she drafts a telegram to Martin Luther King’s widow and finds herself outraged by the sight of anti-Vietnam war protesters being heckled by Christmas shoppers telling them to get a haircut – causes her to spar with Gesine, who won’t voice dissent for fear of being deported. What someone calls “personal responsibility for what your own country’s government is doing” is one of the novel’s defining issues, as Johnson dares us to view 30s Germany and 60s America as indefinably parallel.
All this unfolds in a swirl of characters’ thoughts, reported speech (imaginary or otherwise), paraphrased journalism and authorial description, as Johnson toggles between the first and third person. There are metafictive games, too. “I gave you a year. That was our agreement,” Gesine tells the author, in her head, while observing how, in recalling her past, she can hear herself “speaking not only from the subjectively (real) past position but also from the position of a thirty-five-year-old subject today”. Once you catch Johnson’s rhythms, you stay tuned. “If we want to get through today in one go,” one chapter begins, “we’ll need section numbers.” The humour keeps you on your toes. “There were 746 murders in New York City last year, most on weekends, the fewest on Wednesdays,” we’re told, as Gesine reads the paper. “The most common reasons were domestic disputes and insulting comments. Always be polite!”
Among the incidentals, there’s masses of incident, with slow-burn storylines dropped and resumed unhurriedly. As Gesine makes her way through the life of her father – a carpenter who returns to Germany from abroad to be with his wife and child just as Hitler seizes power – she’s also rescuing a schoolgirl from a knife fight, bailing out a friend in hock to the mafia or plotting to siphon dollars into socialist Prague.
Johnson wrote Anniversaries in real time, out of the contemporary events that came to hand, at least to begin with. It feels thrillingly spontaneous, almost out of control. You can certainly see why it wasn’t all translated before now. But here it is: a novel of a year, perhaps the novel of the year.
• Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson (translated by Damion Searls) is published by The New York Review of Books, Inc (£24.99). To order a copy for £21.99 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.