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Gretel and The Great War

Book Review: ‘Gretel and the Great War’ by Adam Ehrlich Sachs

Gretel and the Great War

Gretel and the Great War by Adam Ehrlich Sachs is not your typical novel. Instead of the linear narrative most are accustomed to reading, Sachs has elected to give us a series of vignettes of life in post-World War One Austria. The unknown narrator of the piece informs us of a young woman found wandering the streets of Vienna unable to speak.

When the neurologist who is put in charge of her care makes a public appeal for information as to the woman’s identity he receives a single letter. Written by a patient at a sanatorium, who claims to be the young woman’s father, the letter states her name is Margarete-Gretel, and that she wasn’t mute. In fact, the letter writer states, he used to read her a story every night before she went to sleep so she was always exposed to language.

In an attempt to help his daughter, the father enclosed a story with his letter, “The Architect,” and instructed the doctor to read it to Gretel each evening at bedtime. He proceeded to send one story a day for the next 25 days, and then nothing more was heard from him. It is reported by our mysterious narrator that the letters have been residing in the doctor’s archives for 80 years and have only recently come to light.

The stories proceed in alphabetical order, so “The Architect” is followed by “The Balletmaster” who in turn is followed by “The Choirmaster” until the alphabet is completed with “The Zionist.” Aside from each story concluding with a salutation from the father to Gretel, at first they seem to have nothing in common.

However, as the stories continue through the alphabet we begin to recognize scenarios and characters from previous missives. Gradually we realize that either directly or indirectly all the stories are interconnected and like pieces of a puzzle gradually come together to give us a picture of a society, that, while elegant on the outside, is deeply flawed at its core.

Sachs has created a fascinating and intriguing picture of the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire following the end of World War One. While the aristocracy are vainly trying to hold onto their status and pretending everything is all right, around them all is crumbling. 

Far too many of Vienna’s citizens are ending up in the sanatorium and the good Dr. Krakauer’s care. We can only assume that it is the very facility where Gretel’s father currently resides as he knows so much about its inhabitants.

While Gretel and the Great War is a remarkable work for its content alone, Sachs has also complemented his creation by writing in a style emulating the naturalistic style of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Readers will have no trouble believing the letters were constructed during the time they purport to have been created.

Gretel and the Great War by Adam Sachs is a delightful and intelligent read. Underneath what at first seems like a lighthearted look at the foibles of a society is a rather grim, and somewhat disturbing, look at a world on the verge of destruction.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of three books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion" and "Introduction to Greek Mythology For Kids". Aside from Blogcritics he contributes to Qantara.de and his work has appeared in the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and has been translated into numerous languages in multiple publications.

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