‘The New Sorrows of Young W.’ by Ulrich Plenzdorf

My rating: 3 stars

The New Sorrows of Young W. by the German writer Ulrich Plenzdorf has the particularity of being narrated by a dead teenager, who takes the opportunity to recall the ultimate months of his short life. Since we know from the outset that Edgar Wibeau died on a 24th of December, the interest of this novel lies in discovering more about the events preceding his death, which was caused by an accident involving electricity.

The book has quite an interesting structure. Edgar’s father is trying to understand what happened to his son, whom he didn’t see for many years. So, we are presented with his conversations with various people, the first of them being Edgar’s mother. These exchanges are interrupted by Edgar who, after his death, comments on what they are saying, offering further explanations and correcting them when they’re wrong, although only the readers can hear him.

We learn that Edgar had been an apprentice at a factory, but he quitted and ran away from home. He went to Berlin at first to apply to an arts school. Despite being turned down, he remained in the city. He didn’t contact his mother but sent some recorded tapes with citations from a book (The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) to his friend Willi.

Before reading this book, I had never heard of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Supposing I had read it, the citations would have probably been more meaningful and less out of place in some instances. They don’t seem to have any significance for someone who is not familiar with that book, which must have been a major influence for Plenzdorf considering the title.

My main problem with this novel, however, was the constant repetition of the word ‘guys’. Edgar’s every other sentence has ‘guys’ as a vocative, and I can’t even begin to explain how much it annoyed me after the first couple of pages.

“I was a complete and utter idiot, seriously. But it spurred me on. I don’t know if you get me, guys.”

The structure of the book helps to convey the misapprehensions that tend to exist when it comes to teenagers. Not only did other people not understand what was really going on with Edgar, sometimes he didn’t seem to fully comprehend the actions and feelings of other people neither. There are various moments of teen idiocy mixed with a pinch of comedy in The New Sorrows of Young W., but I was expecting it to be much funnier.

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