The Third Book About Achim, by Uwe Johnson

The Third Book About Achim

Title: The Third Book About Achim (Das Dritte Buch Über Achim)
Author: Uwe Johnson
Publisher: Harcourt, Brace & World (Originally Suhrkamp)
Year: 1961 (translation: 1967)
Pages: 246
Order: Try Abe Books or download from Archive.org
What it is: A slice of modernist meta-ficton: a novel about a failed attempt to write a biography of an East German cycling star, Joachim T.
Strengths: It's up there with Tim Krabbé's The Rider and Paul Fournel's Need For The Bike.
Weaknesses: If authors like Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino or Paul Auster don't fire your fuse there's a fair to middling chance that this one won't set your world alight.

What is The Third Book About Achim?

Uwe Johnson's The Third Book About Achim is a 1960's West German novel about a failed attempt to write a biography of an East German cycling star, Joachim T. The basic story is this: Karsch, a journalist and author who is living in West Germany, in Hamburg, crosses the border to visit a woman he once knew, Karin, with whom he seems to have lived for a time in Berlin after the war was over. She is now living in an unnamed East German city - probably Leipzig - and although the two have not seen one and other in years, they have corresponded, she sending him programmes and photographs telling of her acting career, he sending her his books.

At first there is no purpose for Karsch's trip across the border: he is simply accepting the invitation of someone he used to know. He wanders the city, apparently aimlessly, taking the place in. But, though he has written books about other cities, captured them in words, this East German city is different. It is both familiar and alien at the same time. The architecture is recognisable, the advertisements familiar, the language the same, but the life of the people is so very different to what Karsch knows in the West. And though he dismisses the idea of writing about this city, Karsch seeks to try and understand it for himself:

"This language which he knew, which helped him to make himself understood throughout the day, still gave him frequently the illusion of belonging, again he thought that the two countries were comparable, wanted simply to add them up in his mind, since a forgotten sign over a shop, the language, the familiar aspect of public buildings called to mind its counterpart on either side of the border; but then the resemblances did not merge: the last package of cigarettes still advertised in gold and black had been sold here fifteen years ago, a different law was administered in the public buildings, the wording of this law determined the look of the streets, and not the words of the people who were walking about in them, who were looking down from their windows into the cool quiet evening, propped on pillows, chatting: Karsch did not understand the language of the official newspapers."

At the time of Karsch's visit Karin is in a relationship with Achim - Joachim T - and through her Karsch begins to get to know this cyclist who has become a hero to his people:

"Achim invited Karsch to watch him at his training and got him a seat on one of the motorcycles that accompanied the eight man team. For almost an hour the eight men stormed through the dusty scent of a quiet rural highway at the exact speed of nineteen miles an hour preceded by the car of the trainer upon whose hand signal they all went up to twenty-two miles an hour, after ten minutes changed back to nineteen, pushed up to twenty-five. Their sweat blackened the dust in their faces, the tyres swished on the polished pavement, a light breeze pushed through the trees. They rode in a formation that slanted off to the left each man behind the other, each using the lee side of the man in front of him, with the leader serving as a wedge for them all. Their direction was south between the wind and the sun, the formation dropping off toward the sun: whoever was leader would signal his neighbour with eyes and nods when his time was up, pull over to the right and drop back until, with a sudden tread of the pedals, he could circumvent the back wheel of the last man, become himself the last on the extreme left. After a while the line of backs began to fidget, two men had to force themselves, but couldn't help falling behind. Achim was riding in third position just then. The rider of Karsch's motorcycle turned his head and pointed to Achim with his chin. Achim had swept to the side in one large leap, slowly pedalling he waited for the two laggards to catch up and immediately drew them along behind him at top speed. Karsch saw the trainer's car stop, with the trainer leaning heavily across the bulk of the rolled-back top, calling something loud, laughing. Achim slowly looked up, his face grave and dirty, he did not laugh, he passed. Soon after the exercise was over. While the bicycles were carried to the truck, Achim came over to Karsch and asked him what he thought of it. Not that he cared what Karsch thought, he merely showed the courtesy everybody praised him for. In this case the courtesy of the host. Karsch asked to have the relay technique explained to him. That pleased Achim a lot."

Excuse me for asking this, but does this Johnson guy have an issue with paragraph breaks?

A fair point. Some of Johnson's paragraphs do run on for pages at a time, your eyes are crying out for a glimpse of whitespace by the time you get to the end of them. But there is something odd about this, about the way they drag you in and speed you along. There is a narrative drive to the novel, yes, but there is something in the way that Johnson writes that also pulls you along, keeps you going, even when you feel yourself getting lost in the labyrinth of his super long paragraphs. And even when his elliptical prose pushes you back a page or two to grasp what he's actually talking about.

Paragraphing is just one syntactic issue some may have with this novel. Johnson also uses odd punctuation. And then there's the language: some of it seems arcane. A rim is a felly. Pedalling is sometimes treading. Forks are yokes. Whether this is a matter of translation (the translation appears to have been by Johnson himself) or whether this was the language of the time and place I can't say.

What's with this question and answer thing we're doing?

It illustrates a stylistic trick employed by Johnson, borrowed loosely from early modernists like James Joyce. The main effect - within the novel - is to produce a fragmentary narrative, scenes that don't always cleanly fade one into the next. Johnson's answers can go for pages and pages and pages, mine only feel like they do.

Ok. Back to the book then. Karsch has got to know Achim and both evidently have feelings for Karin - is this going to turn into one of those love triangles, another Jules et Jim?

Not quite. But the tension in the way the three characters interrelate is worth paying heed to: the exact nature of the relationship between Karin and Achim - and between Karsch and Karin - is part of the reason Karsch extends his stay in East Germany:

"Karsch looked at the centre spreads [of the newspapers piled in front of him]. The second one he opened showed photos of the start of the bicycle racing season. At which he had made Achim's acquaintance. There were pictures of the racers' camp, faces looking up from behind or beside glistening wheel spokes, of the stadium director during his speech, of slanted bodies in steep curves, of Achim waving flowers during the honours lap. The accompanying text praised the development of bicycle riding since the war and commented on the prospects of this year's big race to the neighbouring Eastern countries and back for which Achim had been listed. In the margin, framed, was an earlier photo of Achim placed next to an interview. It first discussed the training results. The last and longest question dealt with Achim's birthday, banteringly it seemed. Well, when are you going to get married, Achim? Achim replied: First you've got to find the right girl; there were protests that someone so famous should have this difficulty. Achim explained that each public appearance surrounded him with requests for autographs and opinions and souvenirs. Even if I want to buy a pound of apples, I can hardly move. You can't go looking around that way. Behind the photo in profile the onlooker could guess a frugally furnished room. And all those marriage proposals in Achim's mail? The brief answer: I can't go on that many dates. A bicycle racer doesn't have much free time. Question: Are you perhaps too demanding? And Achim, detached, a trifle fed up: like everybody else. Someday I'll probably find the girl in my life. And you bet, then I'll get married."

So how come Karsch decides to write this biography of Achim?

The seed is sown for him by the editor of one of the city's newspapers, a Mr Fleisg, who one day suggests that Karsch should interview Achim:

"The city and county newspaper whose editorial staff he represented: said Mr. Fleisg: had the interests of the ruling party no less at heart than those of the entire population. At this moment a guest from the Western brother country was showing his good will by coming to visit. In cordial intimate conversations the common points of the German nation emerge. [...] Would a mere interview not be miserly under such circumstances? It was no secret whom Karsch had come to visit, and especially after the most recent photo coverage (he placed the illustrated weekly on the table, but did not open it, Karsch looked up with curiosity), Mr. Karsch would surely understand the people's as well as the ruling party's heartfelt interest in Achim. Who was a symbol of the force and potential of the country. While West German journalism had come face to face with this symbol in the person of Mr. Karsch."

From that initial idea grows the idea of writing a biography of Achim, about whom two other biographies have already been written.

What goes wrong that Karsch finally shelves his biography of Achim?

In brief: he encounters problems with the different kinds of truth. Karsch seeks to tell the truth objectively. Achim wants his story told subjectively. And the authorities, who commission Karsch to write the biography of Achim, they want the truth told politically. Reconciling the three proves to be too much for Karsch.

There are things in Achim's life that Karsch has no difficulty in editing out, he is not aiming for total truth. But there are other things Karsch feels are essential to the proper telling of Achm's story. This is one of the points at which The Third Book About Achim becomes interesting for readers of contemporary cycling biographies: the difficulties Karsch encounters are encountered by most authors. Given that so many of the cycling books produced today are rider biographies, taking a time out to consider the manner in which they are created - the compromises necessarily made - is a worthwhile exercise.

It's hard to imagine that Johnson would go to the bother of writing a novel simply to point out the difficulties of writing biographies.

A fair point. And quite true. The whole thing is, of course, a metaphor. Karsch, Achim, while the book is about them, it's also about something else entirely. That something is the two Germanys, East and West. Johnson doesn't take sides, come out and declare one better than the other: he is critical of both. And while the book is about - to quote Johnson - "the border: the difference: the distance and the attempt to describe it" it is also about eradicating that border; looking at commonalities; diminishing the distance separating the two Germanys.

Ok, so it's a novel about a failed biography that's really a meditation upon ways of seeing the two Germanys. Look, I hate to break this to you, but I'm a cyclist: why would I want to read that?

Because our sport is central to the story Johnson is telling and you might be interested to see how he describes it? Try this, an explanation of one of the approaches Karsch could have taken to the biography of Achim:

"Karsch had no desire to describe each of the ten years of bicycle races in their chronological sequence, but to condense them instead into Achim's last racing season: to combine what he had seen with what he had been told. Starts, magnificently surrounded by countless spectators who were sent, cheering with the joy of a day off from work, to an impressive place in the centre of cities, white kerchiefs fluttering from the overlooking windows, smiling policemen damming in the crowds, persons from the cultural side of life, often kindly referred to by the papers, would step forth, applauded and applauding, and cut the ribbon and everybody was together under swarms of pigeons that were let loose, etc, even during early morning single starts the riders would find the stadium peopled with rows of white and blue shirts and kerchiefs of uniformed children who had been let out of school, tender voices roaring in unison, emblems and faces woven into flags wrinkled on high swaying poles, army bands marching across the grass still wet with dew, their glistening angularity shifting in the meagre sun, not an empty second: however, ten years earlier, few people would stand between the hasty race on the roadway and permeable ruins of houses and shake their heads or yell timidly, the riders were full of enthusiasm but hardly strong enough for this type of exertion, during the war their inadequate machines had lain hidden in the earth or as dismantled scrap in attics, clattering vehicles accompanied them, occasionally a clumsily painted poster might greet their arrival, scheduled streets were deserted or couldn't be found, confused mayors plundered butcher shops, and stood afterward a hand to their heads, because the fat-bellied washtubs filled with bread and sausage had not been enough to feed the unshakable stragglers of the trip, and the initiators of the East German bicycle sport had to sleep on scanty straw, with half-empty stomachs, and yet were enthusiastic in the morning, although their presence was not welcome everywhere in the destroyed hungry towns."

The Third Book About Achim contains no tense descriptions of sprints, of back-breaking climbs, of crazed descents. No pure racing scenes, as such. Johnson is, instead, taken up more by the role cycling played in East German society. Consequently we get a more colourful depiction of our sport than tends to appear in other cycling stories.

I've guessed already that Karsch is probably a version of Johnson himself. Was Achim modelled on anyone in particular?

Such a reductive question. A novel is an act of the imagination and not just the real world written up with pretty sentences. But yes, Achim is loosely based on a real cyclist: the East German Gustave-Adolph 'Tave' Schur, winner of the Peace Race in 1955 and 1959.

Schur was a star in the era of Coppi and Koblet, Kübler and Bobet. He was already a superstar by the time Anquetil arrived on the scene. But he was a star on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, so he was easily eclipsed - in the West at least - by the men who have gone down in cycling's officially sanctioned history as the giants of the road. But in East Germany ... in East Germany Schur was cycling, the man against whom everyone else was measured.

Is this where you go off on one and waffle on and on about the Peace Race and Tave Schur?

Normally yes, but this time no.

If The Third Book About Achim is as good as you suggest, how come you're only getting around to mentioning it now, shouldn't you at least have mentioned it in passing when you reviewed The Rider?

I would have if I'd known about it but, up until a few weeks ago, I didn't know it existed. Herbie Sykes - of The Eagle of the Canavese and Maglia Rosa fame - brought it to my attention, he having read it as part of the research he's doing for a series he's writing on the Peace Race, for Rouleur magazine. Which is where you'll get your chance to learn more about Tave Schur and the Soviet equivalent of the Tour de France.

Anything else you want to tell me?

Other than that you really should go and read this one, for now, no.

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