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The Library of Babel

A Spin-off of http://bookwormshead.blogspot.co.uk

The Bonfire of Berlin: A Lost Childhood in Wartime Germany - Helga Schneider This book is basically built around one peak moment: the young protagonist meeting Adolf Hitler in the Reich Chancellery bunker during the dark days of the so called Battle of Berlin.
One may say I'm underrating the importance of "The Bonfire of Berlin" while writing this, but actually I do think this is the main reason that led editors to publish this book.

Don't take me wrong. I was really interested in this story and particularly happy when I found it midprice. Then I literally devoured the 240 pages wrote by Helga Schneider. Yet sometimes quickness in reading is not to take as a good signal. I guess how most of the times people devour bestsellers, rather than brilliant and insightful books just to read what happens next. As for me, I read the "Da Vinci Code" in a single afternoon but I do think it's crap. Personally a slow reading is more involving and makes me wonder more about story, plot, characters and the message behind a book.

What disappointed me in "The Bonfire of Berlin" has very much to do with both: style used by Helga Schneider and her attempt to write a self-biographical book based on her childhood experiences.

Chapter One: style.
I didn't understand why Schneider switches from present to a literary past tense (at least in the Italian edition) from chapter to chapter and even inside the same chapter without a logic. I mean it's not about flashbacks or reminiscences of the young Helga, it's just random. Moreover, my impression is that the whole book has been written in one week or something, without caring that much of a re-reading process. I reckon how this aspect may be a quality, looking like a spontaneous need of narrating a story long time kept by the author, but I didn't appreciated it as maybe someone else did. Schneider language is very direct but oozes too much with victimism: basically young Helga is the only good and honest person around the collapsing Berlin, while everyone else is, depending on circumstances, selfish, arrogant, spoilt (her little brother, portrayed as a blond little creep) or double-dealing. I found this vision a little bit disturbing.

Chapter Two: autobiography
One may wonder how is possible that 50 years later, Schneider is able to recall what she felt as a seven years old girl, reconstructing whole dialogues and situations with such accuracy. She never mentions about having a diary while living that awful experience and even if she tries to explain this precision with frequent references towards the end of the book to the importance of "looking around for remembering it all" I have some doubts about it. But I guess how this "power of memory" is a common problem while talking about autobiographic novels.

Given this, there are still many good reasons for reading this book, especially if you're interested in a different account of the final days of Germany in World War II seen (and felt) from the side of the defenceless population. But "The Bonfire of Berlin" is still very far from perfection.