Review: The Prussian Lieutenant

The Prussian Lieutenant was originally written in German by Karl May in 1845. It was translated into English by Robert Stermscheg in 2009. The English translation is available digitally and in print through Amazon.

This was our July pick for the Steinbach and Area Book Club.

This is a whopper of a book. 379 pages at a 6×9 trim size. I loved the feel of it. A good, solid book is so satisfying. And the font is not large so if you like larger print opt for the e-book.

Set during the German-Russian occupation of Paris in 1814, it was “historical” fiction when it was first written, and even more so now. In comparison it would be like someone today writing a book set in the 1980s, maybe not quite historical yet but certainly “retro”. As a work of historical fiction it falls in the same category as other classics (such as Emma, Pride and Prejudice) which were contemporary when written but have been on our shelves for so long they have become historic. These books offer us a unique view into the past. In some ways it is clearer, more accurate, and in other ways far more vague. Who among us would explain in detail how something day-to-day works? Like bathrooms or e-mail? Similarly Karl May would not have included such mundane details for his contemporary audience. Robert Stermscheg has done a wonderful job of clarifying such details for us in the translation notes included in the book (notes which I did not include in that 379 page page-count).

The story centers on Prussian Lieutenant Hugo von Lowenklau and his adventures in Paris. He rescues Margot, a young Parisian woman and becomes entangled with her step-brother, Captain Albin Richemonte. Helping Hugo are Margot’s mother and Lowenklau’s superior officer, one Field Marshal Blucher. Albin has the assistance of Baron de Reillac. This cast of 6 is the core focus of the book, other characters mainly being lower ranked soldiers whom the main six cross paths with and a few other minor officials.

The small cast size makes it easy to keep everyone straight and you become intimately involved with each of them. You feel a deep connection, positive or negative, to each.

This is, at heart, a love story, but is full of intrigue and humour. Blucher is by far my favourite character and he adds so much lightheartedness and intensity to this story.

In some ways this book feels cliched, but you have to remember that it was written before whatever other book it is reminding you of. Like other books of its time-period, it is BEFORE cliches were cliched.

It took me FOREVER to read this book the first time. I would read a chapter or two and set it down, but it was never out of my mind. It just took me that long to unpack and digest the level of detail in this book. And yet the pacing was remarkably balanced. The tensions in the plot were resolved with ingenuity on the part of the characters. Motives remained consistent to the characters’ personalities. The time period was authentic and so rich in detail that you felt you were there.

Robert did an excellent job of keeping the steady pace and authentic feel of this story while making it easy to read and understand. His notes were helpful and interesting.

5 out of 5 stars to both Karl May and Robert Stermscheg.


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