Homeland by Walter Kempowski review – confronting German guilt and suffering

There is no healing catharsis in a 1980s road trip to the lost territories of East Prussia, by the author of All for Nothing

Walter Kempowski, who died in 2007, was 15 when he witnessed the flight of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans from the Red Army as they advanced into the eastern territories; his father, who was conscripted as a Wehrmacht officer and killed in the last days of the war, owned one of the ships used to shuttle refugees from East Prussia to Rostock, where the Kempowskis lived. Close to 300,000 starved, drowned, froze to death or were killed by the allies as they fled.

The young Kempowski became a Luftwaffe courier, only to be found guilty in 1948 of collaboration with the US and sentenced to 25 years in prison by the occupying Soviets. He served eight, and on release was deported to the west. There, as well as writing his German Chronicle series of novels, he amassed a vast collection of wartime letters, testimonies and documents, using it to create the monumental Echolot (Depth-Sounder), a 10-volume “collective diary” and unique contribution to the collective act of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “working through the past”.

His final novel was the bestselling All for Nothing, and the same anguished phrase resounds at the heart of Homeland, published in Germany in 1991 as Mark Und Bein (Marrow and Bone). It is 1988 and Jonathan Fabrizius, a 43-year-old jobbing writer living in Hamburg and getting by on a stipend from his uncle, is offered a trip to East Prussia – now part of Poland – to write a travel piece for a Japanese car manufacturer planning a motor rally (“state-of-the-art V8 engines against a backdrop of dilapidated towns”). Jonathan was born there, on the migrant caravan: his mother bled to death shortly after giving birth and her body was left in a church porch, while his father (like the author’s) was killed on the Vistula Spit. “As far as suffering was concerned, this guaranteed him an unparalleled advantage over his friends,” Kempowski dryly observes. But suffering, Jonathan begins to see, is everywhere: “Hamburg was teeming with East Prussians, every one of whom must have a story to tell, and it seemed to Jonathan very strange that nobody asked them about it.” When he pesters a newspaper vendor for his story, though, he immediately regrets it: “He had forfeited his advantage on the suffering front. He stood at the kiosk in his baggy Danish cardigan … wondering how to get away.”

Walter Kempowski: a tightrope between black humour and genuine horror.
Walter Kempowski: a tightrope between black humour and genuine horror. Photograph: Fricke

He shares a flat with his younger girlfriend, Ulla, a part-time museum curator working on an exhibition of depictions of cruelty; they have separate rooms, their relationship having fizzled into mutually dishonest deadlock. As much for the generous fee as for the chance to see where he was born, Jonathan travels to Poland with famous racing driver Hansi Strohtmeyer and Frau Winkelvoss of the Santubara Corporation. As they drive the rally route they are dogged by a coachload of German “Homeland Association” members who pop up like a Greek chorus, full of a complex attachment to the land where they were born, a sentiment unexpressed and avoided by Jonathan. When history does catch up with him it’s briefly devastating, but quickly internalised. There can be no healing catharsis, Kempowski suggests, as Jonathan returns to Hamburg, untransformed.

It can be hard, when reading books in translation, to disentangle the intentions of the author from the later decisions of the translator. Charlotte Collins also worked on Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life; her award-winning translation is supple and pellucid, a tour de force of tact and skill. Homeland, interestingly, is not such a smooth read. Throughout, there is an instability around free indirect speech, and there are some unattributed lines of spoken dialogue, too. The result is a slightly distancing sense of uncertainty about who is telling the story and how we should relate to it – which may have been deliberate on Kempowski’s part.

But that uncertainty makes it difficult to judge something else about the novel: its disdainful rendering of women, from the faithless Ulla with her rotten incisor to the “stupid” housewife who collects flowery china and the risible Frau Winkelvoss in harem pants and unsuitable shoes, hung about with tinkling necklaces. One hopes this perspective belongs to the characters, but it’s sometimes hard to be sure whose voice we’re hearing. “They were curious to discover what there was to see there,” Kempowski writes as Jonathan and his companions set off for Danzig. “Polish women were said to be stunningly attractive, but after three years they started losing their figure.” And then one of those floating lines of unattributed speech: “They have no idea Germans used to live there.”

Homeland walks a tightrope between black humour and horror: the Santubara crew in their supercars are “like members of a master race”; an antiques dealer might well have “drawers full of cut-off hair”. The past bleeds, unasked and largely unremarked, into the present; in the end, neither German suffering nor German guilt can be suppressed.

Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley is published by Bloomsbury. Homeland by Walter Kempowski, translated by Charlotte Collins, is published by Granta. To order a copy for £13.19 (RRP £14.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Melissa Harrison

The GuardianTramp

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