I loved Walter Kempowski’s All For Nothing*. Homeland is the only other one of his novels that has been translated into English. Like All For Nothing it deals with the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans who fled East Prussia as the Red Army approached in 1945; but in this case it’s seen through the eyes of one of them, forty-three year old Jonathan Fabrizius, whose mother died giving birth to him during the flight. His father, a Wehrmacht conscript, died too. Jonathan has done nothing much with his life; he earns money as a freelance journalist in Hamburg writing for magazines, but his lifestyle is assured by a generous allowance from an uncle. He’s studied “a wide variety of things”, but he doesn’t care deeply about anything, including his girlfriend Ulla. When he gets a lucrative offer from a car company to go on a trial run for a test-driving tour in East Prussia, he immediately thinks No; but he goes, telling himself it’s for the money and the chance to research one of his interests, Brick Gothic churches. But the image in his mind is
Uncle Edwin entering the church with the dead woman in his arms – where to put her? – and setting her down on the steps. The folds of her white dress stained with blood. (15)
But that isn’t the whole story, as Jonathan realises:
When you’d started a world war, murdered Jews and taken people’s bicycles away (in Holland) the odds were stacked against you.
The trip turns into high farce, but at the same time nationalism and national guilt keep confronting Jonathan, in the patriotic elderly Germans on a tour bus, in the presence of concentration camps and Hitler’s headquarters, in the voice of a sick young girl who asks him, “Who’s to blame?”
But Jonathan’s willed dissociation gives the book a strangely muffled effect. We’re waiting for the moment when things will change in him, and it almost happens. It seems that the return to the churchyard where his mother is buried and the Vistula Spit where his father died have satisfied something in him and changed him. But when he returns home he’s back in his habitual frame of mind. He’s not going to let anything disturb him:
it could be dangerous to delve into things that were better left alone.
Playful though its tone often is, it’s the book of a disappointed man. Kempowski was bitter at the lack of recognition for his work, which all centred on the same theme. But he moved beyond this in his last great novel All For Nothing. Read them both.