Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Erich Maria Remarque has managed to capture like few others the atmosphere of his era, and in The Black Obelisk he takes us to the heart of Germany after the First World War. It introduces us to Ludwig, a young veteran from the war, now working for a monument company, mostly selling stone markers to the loved ones of the recently-departed. With the historical inflation in his country only worsening by the hour, Ludwig tries to find a meaning for his life amidst a turbulent and collapsing society.
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Erich Maria Remarque Drags us to a Forgotten Era
The great debate still rages on as to the factors which dictate the moral values of our existence, with the list of culprits ranging from biology all the way to politics and history. There likely won’t be a consensus on the topic anytime soon, but in The Black Obelisk, Erich Maria Remarque gives us a stern reminder of just how much a country’s economical situation can influence the mentality of its people.
The period between the two World Wars seems, with hindsight, like a brief interlude during the most violent decades of human activity; sandwiched between two of the biggest historical events (in recent times, at least), those few years of relative peace tend to be unfortunately overshadowed. The hyperinflation in Germany is certainly one of the greatest catastrophes during this time period, and Remarque opens the story by taking us to the start of it.
We are introduced to Ludwig, a young veteran from the First World War who has found a place in the world for himself by working as a salesman for a monument maker. At the moment, their business is concentrated exclusively on selling tombstones to the loved ones of those who died in the war. While the job has its perks (like a salary) and doesn’t bother Ludwig much, he can’t help but feel there should be more to life, even in a war-torn Germany.
Plying his trade by day as best he can, Ludwig spends his evenings in any number of ways, from drinking with his friends to drinking with clergymen and philosophers, always in search of the two things he needs most badly from this world: food and love. From time to time, he also visits the one woman he truly loves, Isabelle, confined to the incurable ward of an insane asylum.
As one day ends and the next one begins, the inflation rears its head and time again, the value of the German Mark exponentially decreasing, and Ludwig’s world being plunged further and further into chaos along with it. There seems to be no end in sight, no refuge from the perpetually-escalating madness… and yet, the search for meaning must go on, for what else is there left to do?
A Show of Misfortune in The Black Obelisk
Conventionally-speaking, I wouldn’t say The Black Obelisk really has a concrete plot beyond the protagonist’s daily life, his quest to stay alive and find a meaning to his life. He isn’t a great hero bound to stop the inflation, nor is he destined to play any remotely remarkable part in history. Rather, he’s a simple, vulnerably and cynical man, doing better than some and worse than others.
Personally, I find it’s a little more accurate to describe the story in this novel as being a series of related vignettes witnessed by Ludwig, more often than not focusing on the misfortunes of other people in the midst of the rampant inflation. Sometimes, of course, he also chooses to talk about the fortunes of those who have it better than himself, without bothering to hide his envy.
I am a modern man with a strong tendency to self-destruction.― Erich Maria Remarque, The Black Obelisk
Some events befalling the various characters in this modern classic are small in nature, some are bigger, and others verge on the fence of ridiculous comedy. However, all of them come together and make up the smaller parts of a bigger picture, one aiming to capture the atmosphere and the mentality of the era with feeling rather than precise descriptive words.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t personally say I’ve visited inflation-era Germany. However, from what little I know and how much I can imagine, it does seem to me like Erich Maria Remarque, simply put, knows what he’s talking about. He never hesitates to shed light on all he thinks is wrong in his society, and what’s more, he actually supports it with well thought-out arguments and clever little situations which illustrate his points.
Lest you think The Black Obelisk is all doom and gloom, rest assured there is a healthy dose of dark comedy to help balance things out, as is also the case in some of Remarque‘s other novels. He often veers into the territory of absurdity, and unlike many of those who have tried before him, he manages to colour even the most tragic circumstances with humorous paint.
A World Without Meaning
The plot itself, or I suppose the lack thereof, is really just a vehicle to have Ludwig exploring the world around him and all the different ways in which the inflation has robbed him of meaning in his life. Time and time again we are treated to long arguments and observations which all seem to inevitably pull us into the realm of cynicism.
Never do anything complicated when something simple will serve as well. It’s one of the most important secrets of living.― Erich Maria Remarque, The Black Obelisk
I’m sure there are many who will be able to relate to Ludwig’s desperate and largely unsuccessful search for a purpose, even if they’re not living in war-torn countries. The quest he is on transcends time and context, and along the way he offers plenty of material for us to reflect upon. In my opinion, some of the more interesting moments come from his meetings with Isabelle, an asylum patient who knows him as either Rolf or Rudolph, depending on her mood.
While overtly their conversations seem largely nonsensical, with Ludwig attempting time and time again to talk her out of her own delusions, they carry many beautiful ideas about perspective, limitations of the body and the mind, and the things which, in the end, are truly the most important in life.
Expanding on the failing love between himself and Isabelle, Ludwig also explores the lack of love which has gripped his country firmly and dictated its subsequent history. He discusses the lack of love between Man, God, Country, and of course, fellow Man, which to me seems like the ultimate cause of his meaningless predicament. Observations about the inherent beauty of the world are a bit more absent than in his other novels.
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Thankfully, he does leave us with some sparks of light here and there so we don’t lose hope along the way, and considering everything which preceded it, the ending is somewhat optimistic (at least where our protagonist is concerned), but not without the author’s trademark dose of sobering realism. It’s the Germany Remarque has always known, and it’s one we’d all do well to never forget.
The Final Verdict
The Black Obelisk by Erich Maria Remarque is a tremendous accomplishment in the historical fiction genre, capturing like none other how life in Germany felt and looked like during the great inflation. Cynical, humorous, thought-provoking, with piercing observations and a sharp wit, it stands tall among Remarque‘s greatest works.
If you’re a fan of the author, are looking to discover what he has to offer, or are interested in learning about inflation-era Germany through the eyes of an author who lived it himself, then I highly recommend this book for you.
Erich Maria Remarque
(June 22, 1898 – September 25, 1970)
Erich Maria Remarque was a German author whose best-known work to this day remains, without a doubt, All Quiet on the Western Front, though he certainly had other notable works including Three Comrades and Arch of Triumph.
His many experiences during the war have rather visibly fueled his many thoughts and ideas he developed in his writings.