Kempowski is a master of the art of writing simply and with admirable brevity while channelling big themes and confronting some of the most important issues arising from our history. Homeland is elegantly written, brilliantly sharp-witted and thought provoking. I’m not the first person to argue that more of Kempowski’s novels should have been translated into English over the years. So full marks to Granta for following up the publication of the critically acclaimed All For Nothing last year with Homeland this. An eye-opening and very memorable read.
Kempowski (1929-2007) is one of the most significant post-war German novelists and he was not afraid to cast a critical eye over Germany’s troubled past before it became fashionable to do so. Homeland deals in big concepts. We use historical stories not only to tell tales of the past but to illuminate something of the modern age too (asking questions about what history tells us of ourselves?). Homeland investigates the past and our understanding of it. However, it also questions when events in the past actually become a matter of history and not of part of our lived experience. Jonathan, at the heart of the novel, is the child of a German couple and was born at the end of WWII. Is the war legacy for him, memory or book learned? When we consider memory we have to ask if the past ever become something detached from us? Jonathan comes from the east, a much fought over and disputed territory, but what determines his perception of the past? What of the past is retained, handed down or promoted by his own experience? At what point and on what grounds do we divorced ourselves from the attitudes and actions of our forebears, their guilt and moral responsibility, while retaining our connections to them? What happens when we face the past rather than pretend it doesn’t matter? If we refuse to think about the past, to acknowledge it, do we perpetuate its errors, and thereby learn nothing? Or as the concentration camp guard said of Auschwitz: “Hier ist kein Warum” (There is no why here).
All For Nothing was the story of an East Prussian, German family, the von Globigs, during the final winter of WWII. The father is away fighting and the mother mollycoddles her twelve-year-old boy (partly because his sister died of scarlet fever). The Nazi regime is crumbling, the war creeping nearer. The novel is populated by characters arriving on the family estate; a die-hard Nazi, a war profiteer, a well meaning pastor but also Ukrainians, Poles and Jews. It’s an excoriating examination of delusion and self-justification and the decay of society in the face of a descent into chaos. The war that the family is complicit in, and has largely seen as something at a distance, is about to come to them with devastating consequences.
The themes of All For Nothing are present in Homeland with the added element of exploring issues with historical insight. Also in the light of the coming fall of the wall, this is the cusp of a peaceful revolution. Ultimately, when Jonathan confronts the past, he states/questions: “It’s all for nothing, he thought, again and again. And: Who’s to blame?”
When Jonathan Fabrizius sets out on his journey from the comfortable and familiar landscape of the west for a temporary job in the east he isn’t seeking to examine his family past, or Germany’s history or the unique inheritance of a region of Poland that floated back and froth across empires over the last few centuries. However, it is an inevitable consequence of going back to his place of birth. This is 1988, Jonathan lives with Ulla in a Hamburg flat, it’s a comfortable existence but their relationship is a little stale, neither is aware of the other’s needs, they should be in a healthy partnership. Jonathan receives two letters; one he dismissed as a circular but he opens the other, a letter from his uncle in Bad Zwischenahn in the east, a present of DM200 for his birthday. It brings back memories for Jonathan who was born in February, 1945 in East Prussia (Germany then, Poland now). His father died on the Vistula Spit on the Baltic Coast during the Russian advance, his mother died in childbirth and he was nursed by a local peasant woman. Eventually he opens the second letter which is a job offer from the Santubaru car company. They want Jonathan to devise a tourist rally route through Poland for motor journalists to demonstrate their latest luxury model.
“Then he could write an insightful piece about the trip, say twelve pages of typescript – ‘Masuria Today’ – which they could use to convince journalist that it might be interesting to look around that godforsaken region and take the opportunity of test-driving the new eight-cylinder car at the same time.”
The torpor in his relationship with Ulla makes him receptive to the idea but it’s the opportunity to visit stately homes, churches and the cultural sites paid and with all expenses covered that swings it. His enthusiasm such as it is, is for the architecture and the art history. His friend Albert Schindeloe, a man with a mysterious past, encourages Jonathan to bring back treasures for his shop. In a twist on a theme Albert is concerned with art looted from Germany during one conversation. A stone through the window of the Turkish restaurant they are eating in is a reflection on the coming political shift in modern Germany but Hamburg is a multi-cultural city, people live in harmony. The press don’t seem to be very interested in that. “Love and peace and harmony for what they look for with regard to their neighbours in the east.”
Jonathan doesn’t intend to go to Bad Zwischenahn to revisit his personal family past. At the airport he meets the Santubaru crew and they set about their task. In Poland, they meet the people, explore the places (remaining the war damage, dodgy showers, socialist advancement, decent beer), they are robbed, and inevitably visit the concentration camps.
Much in life is a matter of perspective. “Jonathan realised he had forfeited his advantage on the suffering front.” His experience may buy him kudos in Germany among his peers but in this land his orphan past counts for very little. This is a novel of perspectives and of landscapes; political, geographic, cultural and historical. Jonathan turns over rocks to discover things left undisturbed until now. This novel questions the very concept of one’s homeland. Contrasts are drawn between east and west; values and lifestyles, of now and then. The complex history of Danzig/Poland and the perception of it are brought to the fore by Jonathan’s journey east, he will confront his family past, his nation’s past too. Fascinating and relevant to so many debates in modern Europe. I hope we will see more of Kempowski in translation in the future (credit to Charlotte Collins for a wonderful translation).
Paul Burke 5/4
Homeland by Walter Kempowski
Granta Books 9781783783526 hbk Nov 2018