Jan/Feb 2019  •   Reviews & Interviews


Review by Ann Skea

Walter Kempowski.
Charlotte Collins, Translator.
Granta. 2018. 190 pp.
ISBN 978 1 8378 352 6.

It is 1988 and Jonathan Fabrizius is "forty-three years old, of medium height, a man whose neatly parted blonde hair was cut by a barber, not a stylist."

The tone of this description is slightly ironic, as is the further authorial comment that Jonathan ("Joe to his friends"—but never to the author) makes a living writing newspaper articles and that editors like "the verve of his diction and the punctuality of his delivery." It seems, too, that "he couldn't actually live on these commissions" and "didn't have to, because he got a monthly allowance from his uncle."

Jonathan is a rather lackadaisical fellow. He shares a flat in Hamburg with his girlfriend, Ulla Bakkre de Vaera (she has Swedish ancestry) who, we learn later, initiated the relationship. Their rooms are very differently furnished and separated from each other by a furniture-blocked door. Ulla calls Jonathan up with "a two-fingered whistle" when she wants sex, and he hates the fact that he is "called upon to devote himself to her three times a week."

Clearly the relationship is somewhat casual on both sides, and when Jonathan decides to accept a commission from the Santubara car manufacturers which requires him to take a trip to East Prussia, he delays telling her until a week later. She receives the news with indifference.

For Jonathan, however, East Prussia is where his mother died giving birth to him as she, amongst thousands of other German refugees, fled from the advancing Red Army in 1945. Her body was hastily left by his uncle Edwin in a village church vestibule "beside the hymn board with its wooden numbers," and the family was forced to move on. Jonathan's father, who had been a Wehrmacht officer, was also killed by a bomb blast on the Vistula Spit during the final days of the war.

Jonathan knows only the stories of their deaths and imagines the scenes, but he has never returned to East Prussia. Now, his commission is to help set up a test-driving tour for motoring journalists "to convince them of the outstanding quality" of the latest Santubara eight-cylinder luxury car. He is accompanied on this trip by Frau Winkelvoss—"small and radiant" and a fan of gold-buckled Russian leather boots, scented scarves, and harem trousers. She is determined, against all odds, to always to see the best in everything about the Polish and the impoverished Polish hotels, roads, and economy of East Prussia. Also with them is Hansi Strohtmeyer, a highly-paid racing driver who has seen the world, has survived accidents in exotic places, favors comfortable living, and whom Jonathan initially mistakes for their chauffer.

This is a curious book. Partly because of the irony and black humor and partly because it is not always clear whether this is an expression of the character of Jonathan or the views of the author, Walter Kempowski. Quite possibly the answer is both, since Jonathan shares some of the biography of his creator and knows the troubled recent history of Germany and East Prussia. Both men had German parents who lived in East Prussia and suffered under Russian occupation during and after the Second World War. Both remember the 750,000 German refugees who fled the advancing Russian army in 1945 and the horrors they endured.

Jonathan imagines some of the scenes of horror and death. Kemposi witnessed one of them when, as a boy, he saw traumatized East Prussian refugees disembarking from one of his father's ships in Rostock. Kempowski's father, like Jonathan's, was a Wehrmacht officer who died on the Vistula Spit during the war, and Kempowski himself was a young Luftwaffe courier who, after the occupation, was imprisoned by the Russians for alleged collaboration with the American intelligence. His mother, too, was charged with knowing of these activities and also imprisoned. Walter Kempowski was eventually deported to Western Germany.

For both Kempowski and his creation, Jonathan, the concept of a homeland is conflicted. Much of this conflict is expressed during Jonathan's tour from Danzig ("first Polish, then German, then Free City, then German again and Polish again") and, especially during his various encounters with a German homeland association tour-group whose elderly members are travelling through the war-impoverished places of their childhood in a luxury, air-conditioned coach. He listens to this group singing German patriotic songs. And he is alongside this group as they are subjected to a tour-guide's account of the history of the Teutonic Order's great Marienburg fortress, where they also see an exhibition of drawings made by a Polish prisoner when the fortress was used by the Germans as a concentration camp: "The ladies and gentlemen of the homeland association were trying to move on quickly, because one of their number had been imprisoned in Dachau and still hadn't got over it."

Jonathan's first apprehension of the mixed emotions felt by both Germans and Poles occurs at the airport, where he thinks wistfully of German airport officials and muses ironically that he would "soon be placing himself under foreign sovereignty, a guest; he would have to hold his tongue instead of being allowed to demonstrate his superiority. When you'd started a world war, murdered Jews and taken people's bicycles away (in Holland) the cards were stacked against you."

East Prussia has always been a contested territory, fought over and occupied many times, and the difficult, mixed emotions of pride and guilt felt by the occupiers and the dispossessed are an underlying theme in many of the encounters and thoughts in this book. "Who's to blame?" asks an old woman Jonathan meets and whose home he visits in Danzig. There is no answer. And the words, "ALL FOR NOTHING," keep hammering in Jonathan's brain later, after he visits the bunker where his father was killed by a bomb.

All For Nothing is the title of Walter Kempowski's last novel (he died in 2007), and it seems to sum up his conclusion about the whole troubled history of Germany, including East Prussia. He is best-known in Germany for his collection and collage of documents and first-hand accounts of life during WWII. This 12-volume collection, accumulated over more than 20 years, plus his own and his family's history he recounted in his early novels, gave him more than enough reason to ask "Who's to blame?" And to conclude that it really was all for nothing.

Homeland, expertly translated from the German by Charlotte Collins, is an interesting, beautifully written, often humorous and sometimes shocking novel. Now, when emigration and refugees are daily in the news and are hotly argued political and social issues, it deserves to be widely read.


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