Cover image for Olympia
Bock, Dennis, 1964-
Personal Author:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York ; London : Bloomsbury, 1999.

Physical Description:
252 pages ; 22 cm
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Drawing on imaginary outtakes from Riefenstahl's infamous film of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, Dennis Bock weaves together the lives of a family living in the shadow of history.

Olympia is the story of post-war German immigrants, as told by their son Peter, born in the New World and raised in the sixties and seventies.

Though great figures and events of mid-century touch the lives of this remarkable family, it is the private histories, the grand failings and small triumphs of Peter's family that remain etched in the reader's imagination. From Ruby's struggle to rise above her leukemia and her father's love of severe weather and killing tornadoes, to the saint who witnesses a miracle at the bottom of a drowned Spanish village.

Set against the backdrop of some of the most significant Olympic moments of our times--the Nazis' stylish and sinister glorification of the Berlin Olympics and the 1972 Munich hostage--taking in which 11 Israelis were murdered-- Olympia offers a bold and refreshing perspective on the tragic relationship between Germans and Jews in this century.

Bock writes with insight and clarity in a breath-taking, beautiful prose that signals the debut of a brilliant new talent.

Author Notes

Dennis Bock Dennis Bock was born on Lake Ontario, in the small town of Belleville on August 28, 1964. He moved from there with his family to Oakville, just west of Toronto, when he was six. He entered the University of Western Ontario after high school, and graduated with an Honors BA in English and Philosophy.

He traveled to Madrid after college and began writing his collection of connected stories, Olympia, working on it while in residence at Yaddo, the Banff Centre and the Fundacion Valparadiso, Spain. It was published in 1998 by Bloomsbury US and UK, and by Doubleday Canada. It won several prizes in the UK and Canada. Olympia won the Jubilee Award and the Danuta Gleed Award in Canada, as well as the Betty Trask Prize UK in England. It was also a Globe and Mail Notable Book of the Year in 1998. The book was nominated for both the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the City of Toronto Book Award. Bock's novel The Ash Garden was the Winner of the 2002 Canada-Japan Literary Award

Bock's short stories have also been published in literary magazines and anthologies. Some of his works include The Ash Garden, The Communist's Daughter, and Olympia.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Dramatic events on water and during storms contrast with quiet, understated moments of interpersonal revelation in these seven interlinked stories chronicling three generations of a family cut adrift from their home and heritage. Narrator Peter chronicles the first meeting of his grandparents, both members of the German contingent at the 1936 Berlin Olympiad (his grandmother was a champion diver; his grandfather, a sailor). Peters family now lives in Canada, but his father sailed at the Rome Olympics. His younger sister, Ruby, is an aspiring gymnast, and all of them grapple to find their place in the family and in history. Peters own story includes his boyhood in Canada, a family trip to Germany and his eventual resettling in Spain. The opening narrative is paradigmatic of the familys struggles and of the bizarre events that mark them: Peters grandparents set out to renew their wedding vows on a raft in the middle of the lake, but his grandmother drowns in a freak accident. Years later his parents will recreate this ritual in Spain, where the lake suddenly empties when a dam is opened. Peter himself at one point attempts to break the record for the dead mans float, lying face down in a swimming pool, when a massive storm floods the town and sweeps him out of the pool. His father, a sailboat designer, is fascinated by storms to the point of obsession and becomes an amateur tornado chaser, perhaps hoping to hop aboard one someday. And Ruby, as she toils to become the next Olga Korbut, is stricken with leukemia and battles through a series of remissions and relapses. A strong sense of family bonds and an unspoken sadness pervade this work, as first novelist Bock looks lyrically at the past. The thematic use of water and air and a mystical tone finally become ponderous, but taken individually, these stories are subtle, gracefully constructed and rich in thoughts and images. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One THE WEDDING WE ARE ALL subdued from the night drive home from the lake, where we have been for the last day and a half, sorting out details with the police. I've had my tie in my pocket since the accident. I take it out and lay it on the wood mantel above the fireplace, beside the photograph I haven't seen in years.     Nobody has said anything since we got in the car three hours ago. The crickets are in full force outside, excited by the thin chemical smell of swimming pools and expensive artificial fertilizers. Silently, my mother carries my sister up to her bedroom, careful not to wake her. On the way home, I massaged Ruby's feet while she slept. I knew her new shoes had broken the skin, though she hadn't complained or said anything the whole time. Only the stove light in the kitchen is on. The refrigerator is humming softly, like a dirge. Outside in the back garden my father's watering the sunflowers, though they're already covered in night dew and fast asleep.     From the mantel I take down the photograph of a group of twenty-two girls. It's been hidden for years behind the giant redwood pine cones my aunt Marian brought when she came from California to visit, and the large dusty candles shaped like eagles. In the picture my grandmother sits in the front row cross-legged and smiling, showing off her dimples and good health. This is her seamstress class, 1927, back in the black-and-white days of uniforms and vocational schools. On the back names and ages are written with little slashes through the middle of the sevens, European style. "Seventeen" is scrawled beside Lottie, my grandmother's name.     I examine each face, imagine the course each life has taken since this photograph was made. I want to believe my grandmother's smiling because they've been let out early that day. And because they're excited. I let my imagination slide backwards. Only a few have ever had their photograph taken. The camera still something exotic, in the same class as the zebra, which all of them have seen but never ridden. They've all looked at photographs in magazines, seen wedding photos, fashion prints, pictures of the war.     There are four girls out of the twenty-two who seem to be taking this picture business very seriously. Two sisters, Louise and Greta Schriebmann, who no one likes to associate with because of their suspiciously dark hair. Last year in history class we studied anti-Semitism in Europe, Germany particularly. We watched films of the liberation of Jews from the camps. The sisters are intense and determined, their eyebrows lowered slightly, teeth clenched. They're standing in the back row--only two rows--so you can't see below their waists. Maybe they're holding hands.     Erika is the third girl. The girl with the long pointy nose. I can see the whole length of her body because she's standing at one end of the group, to the photographer's right. She doesn't want to smile in case the principal of the school asks for a copy of the photograph, which he will undoubtedly do. Since 1921 these class photos have been displayed under glass in the lobby of the college. Erika was gravely impressed the first time she saw them and hopes to affect future generations of students in the same way.     The fourth girl looks more sad than stern. This is Silke, my grandmother's childhood friend. On the back of the photograph, drawn beside her name in a youthful flowing hand, there is a heart pierced by an arrow. * * * Eight months earlier, just back from church on a grey autumn morning, my father's parents come for a visit. I'm signing the box of donation envelopes that my Sunday school teacher has given me, feeling resentful that I have to spend my Sunday mornings at church listening to Bible stories and the holier-than-thou attitude of the other kids in my class. I tell my parents about a holy war going on down there in the church basement, divided into rooms by portable walls and decorated with cloth-and-construction-paper Marys and Jesuses, bright and smiling like little elves. But they don't believe me. Everyone is bent on making brownie points with their teacher in the hope that word will filter upwards to the ears of Pastor Roar, who will either make you an altar boy or not. This is the mark of the model young Lutheran. I have not made it yet, nor do I expect to.     My mother's just fixed tea. Dad's wearing his accordion. He plays in a tango band two nights a week. When he has his way, the group experiments with spiced-up German waltzes.     "You know this one, Peter?" he asks, turning to me and smiling. "`Muss i denn,'" he says. "We sing it when someone's leaving. It's a farewell song. Even Elvis did it before he went away to the army." He sings me a verse, the accordion somewhere beneath his voice. Now I must leave this place And you, my sweet, must stay.     Dad also has a trumpet, upright and untouched in the sunroom on its brass-coloured flowering base, glittering in the half-light of this dim Sunday morning.     Ruby leaves her dolls, looks out the window to the Dodge Dart pulling into the driveway. "Oma and Opa are here," she shouts, the only two German words she knows, though she doesn't know that these words are German. My father walks over to the big front window, his fingers silently playing the last notes of this goodbye song, and looks out to his parents coming up the driveway. He's wearing his grey felt hat, the one with the green-grey ostrich feather sticking out the side. He's had it for years, as long as I remember, and sometimes wears it around the house as a joke. He says it makes him feel like a mountain man, a true yodeller, he says, although he's never gone so far as to actually yodel. He goes to the door, opens it, and says loudly in German, "Just in time for the poppy-seed cake." Ruby's out the door by now and down the stairs, hanging on our grandfather's leg.     I move to meet them, not as excited as Ruby or my father, unhappy with Sundays in general, but glad they're here. My grandfather bows to me in a pretend gesture of formality, and I respond in like manner. Then I walk down the steps and kiss my grandmother on the cheek. In German she says what I always know she's going to say because she says the same thing every time they come to visit: Mein kleiner olympischer Spieler. My little Olympian . Then we speak English.     We walk back up the green veranda stairs and into the house, shutting out the cold air behind us. Today they've brought a bushel of apples. McIntosh are better near Kingston, they say, where my grandparents have lived since coming to this country ten years ago. They always bring us food when they visit, a slice of their harvest. Enormous pumpkins, bushels of peaches and plums. They tell us they pick their apples at a friend's orchard. I can imagine them at it, brisk and efficient, shinnying up ladders, oblivious to the threat of gravity. They are both fit and energetic people. They go on hikes and turn over their generous garden twice a year. When my grandmother isn't gardening, she's preserving their harvest. We have jars of strawberry and rhubarb preserve in the basement, clearly labelled in red marker, along with vats of slowly fermenting, burping sauerkraut. When my grandfather isn't planting or picking, he repairs his friends' shoes. His workshop's in the back room where he used to spend twelve hours a day when he was working at it full-time. He is a cobbler by trade, a word that rings magically when I hear it.     Today they seem more energetic than normal. They have something to tell us. They didn't call ahead like they usually do. They know we sometimes go for a Sunday drive after church. They probably decided to come on the spur of the moment. I'm thinking this as we sit down at the kitchen table and watch my mother cut into one of her famous cakes. On Sundays we eat like the Europeans do: big late lunches with lots of desserts. They tell us what the drive was like, how the weather is in Kingston. They say hello for the friends my parents haven't seen since they lived there briefly, before I was born.      "Irene wishes you'd come for a visit soon," my grandmother says in her curving Silesian accent. "You don't know how she misses you." I've seen pictures of Irene. She's tall with red hair like my mother's, but somehow American-looking. I remember her dressed in a green, tight-fitting sweater, those circles of big fake pearls wrapped around her neck and wrists. They used to waitress together at the Palm Diner when my mother first came to this country. She claims Irene taught her all the English she knows.     Sometimes my father grows reflective when my grandparents come to visit--an odd thing, I think, because, as far as I can tell, this is not his natural state. There are so many forgotten habits and memories they bring with them, it seems, along with their preserves or a surprise pair of shoes.     "They started tearing down the corner store," my grandmother says. The store with the old open-top freezer that used to fascinate me on weekend visits when I was four years old. She and I used to step inside on hot summer afternoons and hang our arms into the cool air that lay thickly at the bottom of the freezer like invisible mud. But my grandmother usually stays away from sentimental stories of when my sister and I were younger. She prefers to talk about practical things, as my parents mostly do, not dwelling on the past. The past is passed , they always say. Aside from my mother, the Bavarian, they are from Silesia, a part of Europe which they refer to as `Polish-occupied Germany.' An area known for its industrious and hard-working people, it is an equivocal province, half German, half Polish. A part of the world that's been strangled by history. I have no doubts about how my father and grandparents feel about the past.     But today they surprise us all. We've just finished our lunch, giant gherkins wrapped in veal, stabbed with toothpicks to keep from unrolling. My mother's already doing the dishes. She likes to get things out of the way so she won't have to deal with them later. Calmly, my grandfather picks his teeth with one of the toothpicks he's salvaged from the pile left over from the meal. I'm doing the same. He makes little clicking noises as he sucks his tongue off his teeth. My grandmother's been holding their secret all through lunch, savouring it as she would a special dessert.     "Rudolph and I are going to get married again," she bursts out finally. This sets my father to thinking. I can tell by the eyebrows, cocked slightly at the edge of disbelief. But you're already married, Mom.     Instead he says, "Why not, I suppose," looking at the floral wallpaper between his mother and father. "You could start planning right away."     "Oh, we have," she says. All this very brightly. "You know how organized your father is."     Click goes my grandfather's tongue off his teeth, smiling.     Next summer, the day of their thirty-fifth anniversary, they want to remarry on water just like they did their first time around, but this time aboard a rented houseboat on Sturgeon Lake instead of somewhere in the south of Germany. My father's reaction is lukewarm because he thinks the inclination will pass, in the same way clackers and streaking did. He knows his parents better than that. They're strong, not needy of sentimental gestures like the giving and taking of flowers, or hand-holding. They're veterans of Olympia. Together they watched Jesse Owens win gold and saw Hitler rise from his seat and leave the stadium without shaking the athlete's hand. A second ceremony would be going backwards, like returning to a place you left long ago to find only ghosts, or nothing at all. Probably he thinks his parents need short-term plans to keep them occupied, to keep up their spirits. To keep the wolf from the door. Maybe this is why they're so busy with the gardening and the hiking. They need something to do. They're old, after all. This will be nothing more than another seed planted and left for the crows and squirrels to dig up. It's the planting that counts, and not the fact that the seed is thirty-five years old. We drive to Bobcaygeon, the walleye capital of Ontario, on the edge of Sturgeon Lake where my grandparents have decided to hold their second wedding aboard Sweet Dreams . Dad says Sweet Dreams floats twenty, but there will only be fourteen of us. On the drive up through the Ontario heartland I think of my father's reaction to the news after the rouladen lunch eight months ago, the look on his face that said his parents had finally gone crazy. As we drive north on Highway 35, the radio strangely silent, my mother sits beside him in the passenger seat leafing through Pattern & Design , a magazine for people who make their own clothes from scratch, something my mother does. She locks herself away in the room she's named "My Room" and dreams up impossible suits and dresses. The only thing I can tell for sure is that her favourite colours are yellow and green. She scans the drawings for ideas--lapels, sashes, colours, pleats--nervous and a bit impatient. She's already snapped at Ruby and me. Instead of our usual game of I Spy we sit unmoving, hoping for the awkwardness to pass.     I know what my father's thinking. He's thinking about the side of his parents he's never seen before, the part of them they've kept hidden from him like a jewelry box in a secret drawer. Their longing to travel in time, backwards, to a time before he was even born. My father is usually the cheerful one. Level-headed and constant is my mother. Perhaps she understands the problem too, but she's not telling. She flips the page, adjusts her green- and-yellow shoulder.     The low-rent office buildings and factories on the outskirts of Toronto gradually disappear. From the grey cement and shimmering asphalt emerge enormous rectangular blocks of farmland. The emptiness is broken by a straight line of trees in the distance. We pass a modest hut of plywood on the side of the road under which an old woman sits, selling vegetables. Ten minutes later a pick-up truck pulled onto the gravel shoulder with a hand-painted sign propped up against a wheel: Freshe Vegetables. The variation in spelling probably someone's idea of pizzazz to attract city people on their way to and from the cottage.     The feeling of industry is here, although the factories are long gone. Now it's the efficient use of soil. Giant house-like combines silently pick and spray in the distance. Inside one I imagine a scientist sitting at a flashing control panel, a baseball cap pulled back on his head. But as we drive farther north, the tree walls on the horizon become smaller and thinner, replaced eventually by brush and stone. More and more granite boulders lying around, in the middle of pastures, on the side of the road. The Canadian Shield begins to shoot upwards through the earth in the form of granite outcrops and scattered rubble. Lakes appear, small and secretive, dotted with islands.     We've left home early. It's still before noon. My father says we should be at the docks and aboard Sweet Dreams by two o'clock. We're already dressed for the wedding. Our mother made Ruby and me try everything on last night to make sure there were no last-minute problems. This, our dress rehearsal, was my mother's idea. Everything was perfect because everything was hers. Designed, cut and stitched especially for the occasion. I'm wearing my first real suit, a soft grey, complete with tie. Luckily a summer suit of light cotton, the pants shortened to the knee. It's hot and sticky out. Even the artificial wind through the open windows brings no relief. It feels like I'm wrapped in soggy toilet paper. My mother's told me I'll have to pull up my long black socks when we get there. Until then I can wear them bunched up around my ankles.     Ruby's wearing a pink knee-length dress with a white sash wrapped around the waist. The new dress is carefully rolled up to her hips so she can feel the breeze on her legs better. Her shoes sit beside her feet, shiny and white and stiff. She hasn't said anything, but from where I'm sitting I can see the brown dot on both of her white Achilles tendons where the new shoes have broken the skin. She doesn't want to bug our mother. We both know the tension in the air. For now, better just to sit. (Continues...) Copyright (c) 1998 Dennis Bock. All rights reserved.