Today South London, Tomorrow South London – shirk, rest and play south of the river
Novel set in Poland, formerly East Prussia, in 1988
3rd December 2018
Homeland by Walter Kempowski set in Poland, formerly East Prussia, in 1988. Translated by Charlotte Collins.
The history of what was East Prussia is a very complex one. Over the centuries it has changed greatly, having come under the jurisdiction of other surrounding countries multiple times, and these overlords have not always been positive governors. The novel looks back to the period of WW2 when there was unprecedented upheaval. Towards the end of the war huge numbers of refugees were fleeing from this area westwards, pursued by the Russian Red Army and it is here that the story starts.
Jonathan Fabrizius was born in 1945, as the war was in the last stages. His refugee parents were making their dogged way to new territories, but his mother died giving birth to him. He is currently living in the Isestrasse in Hamburg, with his girlfriend but theirs is not a particularly happy relationship. They live in a row of houses with wonderful period detail from the early 20th Century; miraculously spared the heavy bombing of the city by the Allied Forces. Thus he is a man for whom war memories are integral to his very being, and thus he is a perfect choice to almost go back in time and explore what was East Prussia.
He is offered the opportunity to check out the tourist possibilities for a car rally to the former lands – now Poland. His job is to record the passing landscape for the company and note highlights and experiences as they motor along in the Santubara V8. This car of course will stick out like a sort thumb, as deprivation in the Communist country is widespread and it is not long before they are paying fines into the impoverished tax system. With a driver and PR lady he sets off from Gdansk (formerly Danzig when it was German) and together they explore the country as it opens up before them, to the Marienburg (now Malbork in Polish) and on to the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s bunker.
1988 is a period in European history when Eastern states are in the midst of revolt against Communist dictatorship and thus a very poignant time for Jonathan to be recording. The area which the team is exploring is of course now Polish but it is hard to deny the legacy of the years when it was under German rule. It the co-existence of cultures that is is hard to navigate and reference appropriately.
This is a slim volume of beautifully constructed and rich prose. It is lyrical and conjures up the people and places with acuity, and there is a nice overlay of wry observation. It explores the issues of identity and history of this complex and troubled period and the concomitant legacy at the end of the 20th Century. It is in many ways a very visual novel and the construct is quirky and engaging. Much credit goes to Charlotte Collins who translated this book.
The Sunday Times describes the book as a “darkly excellent” work of fiction. I found it to be a fascinating read, with an interesting writing style. Overall it was very good, though at times the style could feel a little cloying, a little like an overly rich meal. Recommended.
Tina for the TripFiction Team
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