Epic extension of wartime suffering
Kingdom of Twilight
Maclehose Press, £20 Reviewed by Laura Phillips
IT IS 1967 in Lübeck, Germany. As one of the leading characters in this epic novel endures the pangs of childbirth, an unlikely group of her close friends — two Holocaust survivors and a former Wehrmacht soldier — support each other in the anxiety and hope of the hospital waiting room. Later, the young mother, Lisa Kramer, smiles at her baby, Tom, and reflects:
“Wars end slowly, this war is still in the process of ending. When will it be over?”
She wonders, “whether her son would outlive the war. Or would that only be for her grandchild?”
More than 20 years after the Second World War ends, German writer Steven Uhly’s novel’s victims, protagonists and their offspring cannot escape its long shadow. Tom himself is born of a love that flowered despite the destruction, brutality and psychological damage his parents endured.
Tom’s father Shimon is an emotionally tortured product of a war crime. His maternal Jewish grandparents perished in the H o l o c a u s t . His paternal grandmother was a J e wi s h s l ave t o the Reich; his paternal grandfather one of the five SS men who raped her.
His honorary great grandma, a non-Jewish German farmer’s wife, Steven Uhly: heavy on detail is the novel’s quiet heroine and emotional core without whose bravery, goodness and unstinting capacity for love, Lisa, Shimon and Tom would not have been born. is a massive and ambitious examination of the long, tortuous, and seemingly unending aftermath of war. It starts with the assassination of a young SS man in 1944 and breaks off in 1977 with the promise of a search for the man who guided his assassin to her target. It moves between Poland, Germany, France, Cyprus, Palestine and Israel and America and tells, in 186 vignettes cinematic in their detail, the story of three families whose lives and fates are interwoven. The book wrestles with questions of guilt, dislocation, identity, belonging, and the idea and sense of “family”. It uncovers the secrets and lies that perpetrators and traumatised victims use to “survive” their survival — and the damage that is thus done to themselves and to succeeding generations.
It also posits the familiar redemptive notions that the truth is the only path to healing and that love can help victims survive their trauma.
At times, Steven Uhly’s writing — in Jamie Bulloch’s translation — moves with the pace of a thriller; at others, it is weighed down by his apparent inability to leave out the smallest of details.
Uhly creates in Marta Kramer a worthy heroine, whose unshakable bond with Lisa and ministrations to the traumatised and vulnerable are deeply moving. He also provides a suitably vile, chilling and eventually pitiful study in villainy in
Josef Ranzner. The novel will surely make it to our cinema screens sometime soon.