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"The Black Obelisk"

by Erich Maria Remarque

The Black Obelisk The Black Obelisk paints a portrait of Germany in early 1920's, a period marked by hyper-inflation and rising nationalism. Although I saw some people describe the book as boring, I could hardly stop reading it and it is my favorite book by Remarque at this point.

Ludwig is in his early 20's and he, just like most of his friends, is a World War I veteran. Although aspiring to be a poet, he works for a friend of his, Georg, running the office of a small tombstone company. He tries to earn some extra money as a private tutor to a son of a bookstore owner, and by playing the organ at the chapel of a local insane asylum. Thanks to this diversity of activities, Ludwig interacts with a wide cross-section of the German population of his town and the surrounding villages and we are allowed to witness those interactions. We see, for example, businessmen -- some trying to stick to the old principles and going bankrupt, others speculating on stocks, exploiting the system and becoming rich in morally ambiguous ways. We see war veterans -- some highly critical of the old ways that led them to a failed war, others longing for the old days of military discipline and turning into inflexible nationalists hailing the virtues of their rising leader, Adolf Hitler. We also meet Isabelle, a patient at the insane asylum. Ludwig's long conversations with her give Remarque an opportunity to embark on long philosophical debates about ilfe, universe and everything -- these long dialogues are probably the least enticing part of the book. But they are usually followed by much more concrete and interesting conversations with the head doctor and the priest working at the asylum.

Overall, despite the lack of a prominent plot, the book is captivating. It is driven by the small events and daily interactions of the protagonists, who strive for normality in a country that is falling apart all around them.

March 2004

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