His­tory that you can touch

Ju­lian Evans on a com­edy of er­rors set in Ger­many just be­fore the fall of the Wall, by a ne­glected lit­er­ary great

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -

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al­ter Kem­powski is an­other great Euro­pean writer we have come to rather late. It’s an odd tru­ism that we seem to take on au­thors from non-an­glo­phone coun­tries more eas­ily as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of a dif­fer­ent con­scious­ness from ours – think of Sán­dor Márai, Joseph Roth, Bruno Schulz – than sim­ply as out­stand­ing writ­ers. Sadly, our dis­cov­ery of Kem­powski was too late to please the writer him­self: his first pub­li­ca­tion in English, Swan­song 1945, a mes­meric, haunt­ing oral his­tory col­lage of the end of the Third Re­ich, ap­peared in 2014, seven years af­ter his death.

Look more closely at his ca­reer and you will find that Ger­man lit­er­a­ture, too, ig­nored him, not honour­ing him till he was in his 70s. His mis­de­meanours were mul­ti­ple: he spoke with the blunt­ness of a for­mer po­lit­i­cal pris­oner (the Sovi­ets locked him up in the no­to­ri­ous Bautzen prison for eight years for es­pi­onage), he in­sisted that the Ger­mans had been both per­pe­tra­tors and victims, and his books re­fused to mas­sage his­tory, as he ac­cused Gün­ter Grass of do­ing.

He be­came so iso­lated that he took mat­ters into his own hands, or­gan­is­ing lit­er­ary events at which he paid more-fa­mous writ­ers 1,000 Deutschmarks a time to ap­pear. Fi­nally, he se­cured grudg­ing ac­claim. “He is bit­terly es­sen­tial,” the Frank­furter All­ge­meine Zeitung news­pa­per ad­mit­ted, “as a liv­ing ac­cu­sa­tion to some ex­tent, un­remit­tingly telling us we should just pull our­selves to­gether and do our work.”

No sur­prise, then, that the ti­tle of his newly trans­lated novel Home­land, pub­lished in Ger­man in 1992, deals the reader a royal flush of ironies. It is 1988, a year be­fore the fall of the Ber­lin Wall, and Jonathan Fabriz­ius is 43, an or­phan, lapsed stu­dent and oc­ca­sional free­lance jour­nal­ist, ten­ant of a sin­gle room in a faded Ham­burg apart­ment block spared by the Al­lies’ bomb­ing: as close to home­less­ness as you can get with­out ac­tu­ally be­ing home­less.

Pale echoes of love, and of the war, ring in the air. A con­nect­ing, in fact mostly sep­a­rat­ing, door stands be­tween Jonathan’s room and that of his an­noy­ingly ethe­real girl­friend, Ulla. The apart­ment’s other rooms be­long to a gen­eral’s el­derly widow. Ev­ery­one is from some­where else, Ulla from Swe­den, the widow and Jonathan from “the east”. Their shabby quar­ter of Ham­burg sweats a gen­teel alien­ation Bri­tish read­ers may recog­nise: “a farm­ers’ mar­ket is held there twice a week sell­ing pal­lid poul­try, Black For­est stonebaked bread and un­ripe trop­i­cal fruit”.

Jonathan and Ulla are with­hold­ing feel­ings of be­long­ing from each other, too. On her birth­day, Ulla avoids telling Jonathan that a big bou­quet of flow­ers is from her lech­er­ous boss, and he doesn’t tell her he has been of­fered an unusu­ally well-paid com­mis­sion from a car com­pany to go to East Prus­sia and write about the fac­tory’s new eight-cylin­der model. When he ac­cepts, it’s for the money, but an op­por­tu­nity to re­con­nect with his own nar­ra­tive also lurks in the back­ground. He is get­ting tired of re­count­ing the only facts he knows about his start in life, born on a cov­ered cart in freez­ing wind and rain on the trek away from the Rus­sians ad­vanc­ing on the Re­ich’s Eastern Front.

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