All For Nothing – Walter Kempowski (tr. Anthea Bell)

All for Nothing was published in 2006 and was the last novel by Walter Kempowski, an author considered to be one of postwar Germany’s most acclaimed writers.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction in my NYRB Classics edition:

Kempowski used autobiographical material in his work from the very beginning of his literary career, believing his own experience might be a source of historical understanding.

Kempowski was fifteen years old when the Soviets began advancing toward East Prussia and desperate German refugees looked to escape on ships departing from the East Prussian coast. His father was killed in battle during the final days of the war. In 1948, in East Germany, Kempowski, his brother and their mother were arrested for espionage.

All for Nothing

All for Nothing is set in the winter of 1945 in East Prussia at a time when the Soviets are advancing upon Germany.

A German defeat is imminent and yet the war serves as a backdrop; it is the inhabitants of the Georgenhof estate – the von Globig family – who form the focal point of the novel.

The Georgenhof estate was not far from Mitkau, a small town in East Prussia, and now, in winter, the Georgenhof, surrounded by old oaks, lay in the landscape like a black island in a white sea.

The husband Eberhad is away, in Italy, but rumoured to be in a cushy job rather than fighting on the front line. Occasionally, he sends exotic wine, chocolates, tobacco which his wife Katharina stows away at the estate in a cubbyhole.

Katharina, meanwhile, is shown to be a placid beauty, always in a world of her own. She prefers to spend her time in the couple’s private apartment in the estate and read her books.

Anyone who ever spoke to Katharina found her a total blank. She had never heard of anything at all, she hadn’t even guessed at it. ‘She hasn’t the faintest idea,’ people said of her, ‘but she’s beautiful…very beautiful.’ She was the most striking person present at any social gathering, although she hardly ever said a word.

What else could you say about her? She shut herself up in her own rooms, and heaven only knew what she did there. She read a lot, or rather she made her way through a great many mediocre books.

Their twelve-year-old son Peter, is mostly left to his own devices. He is spared from joining the Hitler Youth because of a tonsil problem.

Katharina never spent a long time standing beside the boy. She left him alone, just as she herself liked to be.

The only practical member of the Georgenhof estate is Auntie, ‘a sinewy old spinster with a wart on her chin.’ She keeps the estate running and takes a hands-on-approach to situations. She is in charge of the Ukrainian maids in the kitchen – Sonya and Vera – as well as Vladimir, the Pole, who helps around in the estate.

Since Eberhard had become a special officer ‘in the field’, she made sure everything went smoothly at the Georgenhof. Nothing would have functioned without her. ‘Nothing’s easy,’ she would say, and with that attitude she ran the whole show.

The von Globigs largely appear to be cut off from reality. Their only way of getting a grasp of what is happening out in the world is through the myriad of people who pass through the estate. These are people seeking temporary refuge for a day or two, but always on their way to somewhere else.

These people are more in touch with the realities of the war. So they are surprised that a place like Georgenhof even exists; a place offering them wholesome food and drink and warm hospitality.

At the beginning there is a political economist who finds his way into the estate and is surprised at the luxurious existence of the von Globigs.

Silver? Fine china? The political economist was astonished to find all these precious things still in use, not hidden away long ago, or sent to Berlin or somewhere else. ‘Suppose the Russians come?’ And with all those foreigners just down the road.

Afterwards, many others halt at Georgenhof – a Nazi violinist, a dissident painter, a Baltic Baron, and so on.

Then there’s Drygalksi, a staunch Nazi, who distrusts the motives of the von Globigs believing that they need to be brought down a peg or two.

As the advance of the Soviets seems more real than ever, there is a growing sense of uncertainty in Georgenhof – should they adopt a wait and watch policy, or should they pack their belongings and be on their way?

Meanwhile, moments of the past insinuate upon the present at least where Katharina is concerned. Not involving herself in the present day to day affairs, Katharina’s thoughts keep shifting back to the past. A trip to a seaside town with Lothar Sarkander (mayor of Mitkau) when Eberhad is away in Berlin, is especially a recurring recollection and gives the impression that Katharina is unhappy in her marriage. We are also given a glimpse of Katharina’s daughter Elsie, who dies of yellow fever two years ago. But her room is kept intact the way it was.

While Katharina appears largely passive and content with her own privacy and thoughts, at a pivotal moment in the novel she is asked to undertake a task at the insistence of Pastor Brahms; a task that fills her with a daring sense of adventure. Even then, Katharina is clueless about the implications of what she has agreed to do.

At the same time, a persistent rumbling in the background only highlights the inevitability of the Soviets approaching. A slew of people with carts and trucks packed with belongings begin to flee towards the West. As the urgency mounts, the von Globigs cannot stay in isolation for long and are compelled into action.

At around 350 pages, Kempowski takes his time in fleshing out the characters and building up the drama and tension. There is a rhythmic, fable-like quality to his story telling that accentuates the solitary world of the von Globigs. Like the chorus in a piece of music, certain points are often repeated for greater effect throughout the novel. As the harsh realities of Soviet occupation force their way into the private lives of the von Globigs, Kempowsi chalks out their fates with compassion and grace.

All for Nothing then is an elegy to a lost world, a world that has disintegrated upon the intrusion of war. The last many chapters are particularly poignant as they highlight the difficulties that ordinary people face when the treat of enemy occupation is imminent – the nostalgia for a way of life that is surely lost, the extreme anxiety of being displaced, of fleeing, of leaving things behind, of venturing into the unknown.  Could it ever be the same again?

The first cartloads of old people arrived from Mitkau. They were being evacuated from the monastery. The old people were transported in open horse-drawn carts, sitting on straw [packed well round them. They were nodding their heads, as if in time to cheerful tunes played on a concertina. They had never thought they would have to go on the road again in their old age…

This was an excellent and absorbing novel. Highly recommended!

The New Yorker has published an interesting piece on this book and Walter Kempowski’s life here.

 

The German Room – Carla Maliandi (tr. Frances Riddle)

Last year, I read the rather brilliant Die, My Love, written by Ariana Harwicz and published by Charco Press, which specializes in releasing translated literature from Latin America. Die, My Love easily made it to my Top Books of 2018 list, and also made Charco Press, a publishing house to watch out for.

As a subscriber to Charco Press, I can’t wait to get my hands on Harwicz’ new novel – Feebleminded.

However, I still had a lot of Charco Press’ backlist to explore and a recent trip to Nice seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so. Carla Maliandi’s The German Room is what I finally settled for and packed in my suitcase.

The German Room

If your current life – in a particular city with your friends and family – is giving you much heartache and cause for discontent, will moving to another city and starting afresh give you the peace of mind you so crave for?

This is the central theme at the heart of The German Room.

When the book opens our unnamed narrator is a woman who has suddenly run away from her life and personal troubles in Buenos Aires and taken the plane to Heidelberg, Germany.

Years earlier, looking for a safe haven, her parents had fled to Heidelberg to escape the crippling impact of dictatorship in Argentina, only to return home later.

To our narrator, therefore, Heidelberg – where she was born – seems like the natural choice to begin life anew.

On the plane I was dizzy with anxiety again. But this time I wasn’t afraid of it falling, I was afraid of landing safe and sound, not knowing what to do or why I was there. Going down with the plane would’ve have been easier than landing in Germany with my life in shambles, without having told anyone in Buenos Aires what I was doing.

However, it is not as easy as it seems.

Our narrator initially worries that language will be a hurdle. Subsequent events, however, will highlight that to be the least of her problems.

Despite not being a student, our narrator manages to secure a room in a hostel, although this is a temporary arrangement and she will eventually have to provide proof that she is studying for a course.

Feeling out of place in the hostel, our narrator manages to befriend a fellow Argentinian Miguel Javier who is from Tucuman, and later a Japanese woman called Shanice.

In the first few pages itself, it is revealed that our narrator is pregnant, a fact that Miguel Javier had already gauged from her symptoms of morning sickness.

Learning of her pregnancy, she seems ambivalent at best, her first choice being to terminate it. But not wanting to be judged by the doctor she visits, she decides not to abort. Although she has no clear plan of her prospects in the new city and how she intends to raise her child.

Meanwhile, our narrator has to grapple with a new acquaintance Mrs Takahashi, who visits the city with her husband, when her daughter Shanice commits suicide.

Mrs Takahashi is a strange, melancholic woman who is at odds with what is happening around her and insists on spending time with our narrator. In fact, the sections in the novel, which focus on Mrs Takahashi, are quite disconcerting and eerie. Did some part of Mrs Takahashi’s personality insinuate itself in her daughter Shanice pushing her to end her life?

Earlier, in a dream, Shanice warns our narrator:

‘Ask Feli.’

‘What? About my pregnancy?’

‘No, ask her about my mother…so she can warn you.’

‘Warn me about what?’

‘Warn you that my mother is full of a very dark sadness…and, ya know, that she can get inside you.’

And later the same point is conveyed to her by Feli through Miguel’s sister, Marta Paula…

‘The girl is dead but the mother is alive. The girl knew that the mother was dangerous.’

Post the tragedy surrounding her daughter, Mrs Takahashi refuses to go back to Japan and resume her life there, to move on. Instead, she prefers to stay put in Heidelberg seeking newer experiences.

We are also introduced to some more characters:

  • Mario, a professor at the university and also an acquaintance from her childhood in Heidelberg
  • Joseph, possibly Mario’s lover with whom our narrator has an affair, further complicating the situation, and
  • Miguel’s sister Marta Paula based in Buenos Aires, who our narrator has never met. However, through correspondence and telephone calls our narrator confides in Marta Paula, who in turn looks to give advice by consulting a clairvoyant Feli, much to Miguel’s chagrin.

All of these characters and strands come together to form a very compelling and gripping narrative.

Where the author Maliandi clearly excels is in creating an unsettling atmosphere, as well as in conveying the narrator’s sense of displacement and a deep urge to belong. We feel our narrator’s up-rootedness, making us uneasy as we watch her move forward with no direction. It is as if she is struggling to find her identity or herself, which also explains why she is not named throughout the novel.

Even if I course the whole world looking or a place to feel at home, I wouldn’t belong anywhere.

Even in her new relationships, she seems to take people for granted. Then, at one point in the novel, desperately looking to cut off ties with Mrs Takahashi, our narrator urges her to go back to her old life in Japan, which is ironic given that she, in a similar situation, is not willing to do the same.

And yet, it is difficult not to sympathize with our narrator, a testimony to Maliandi’s strong writing.

In a nutshell, The German Room touches upon the themes of escape, family, independence and belonging.

The blurb at the back of the novel reads:

This is a book for anyone who has ever dreamed of running away from it all, but wondered what they might do when they get there.

Does our narrator finally find her peace?

I thought this was a wonderful novel and another strong offering from Charco Press.

Translation credits go to Frances Riddle.