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
W240pp, Granta, £14.99, ebook £14.99
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.