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.

 

Bottled Goods – Sophie van Llewyn

Bottled Goods first came to my attention when it was shortlisted for the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize, which has been set up to reward books published by small, independent publishers. Subsequently, it has been longlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for fiction.

The author Sophie van Llewyn was born in Romania and now lives in Germany. And this is her debut long fiction work.

The book had already garnered a lot of positive reviews. Wondering what the fuss was all about, and intrigued by the premise of flash fiction, I decided to try it out.

Bottled Goods

This is how the Novella-in-Flash is described on the author’s blog:

A novella-in-flash is a novella that consists of independent flash fictions (that is, self-contained stories ranging from 5 to 1,000 words), that function as ‘chapters.’ They are linked, forming a longer story. Think of them as brushstrokes, each of them a touch of colour in themselves — but all in all forming a ‘bigger picture’.

It’s a technique that has worked brilliantly for Bottled Goods.

The book is set in Bucharest in Romania in the 1970s when it was under Soviet rule. The central character is Alina, a teacher in a city school. Alina comes from a wealthy family, and her aunt (her mother’s sister) is married to a top government official, allowing her certain privileges.

Here is how it opens…

When Aunt Theresa calls, I’m doing my homework on the History of Socialism.

‘Alina? Is your mother at home?’ she asks.

‘No,’ I say. ‘She’s working the late shift this week. She won’t be home until eight.’

‘Good. I’ll pick you up in half an hour. Wear something black and sturdy shoes.’ And she hangs up before I have the chance to argue.

From the outset it is clear that the relationship between mother and aunt are strained. However, Alina gets along very well with her aunt and many a time turns to her for help.

Meanwhile, Alina goes on to marry Liviu, a man below her when it comes to class. It’s something that Alina’s mother greatly resents and provides the first hint of a discord between mother and daughter.

I mentioned at the beginning that Alina is a central character in these flash fictions, but the same could also be said about the city of Bucharest.

Little by little the terrors of living under Soviet rule become apparent to us – how it has created an environment of distrust, suspicion and aloofness. Ratting out on your neighbours and acquaintances to the authorities is common, perpetuating a constant state of fear and anxiety.

A certain incident in the school involving a couple of girls also puts the spotlight on Alina, and consequently she begins to get hounded by the authorities on this.

Things reach such a head that it begins to take a toll on Alina and Liviu’s marriage. To save it, they begin to hatch a plan of escaping Bucharest altogether.

There is one section related to this that is particularly harrowing – when both are detained at the Border by the Soviet authorities.

‘No! No! I wasn’t praying! I was just tired.’

The man grinds his teeth, then pushes me into the metal table. It screeches as I collide with it. There’s a sharp pain in my hip.

‘Body search,’ he says.

He turns me around, pushes me harder into the table with his knee. Its corner pierces my stomach. I wail. He catches the nape of my neck, squeezes hard. ‘Shut up!’

His hands move up and down my body, tear my shirt open. The callused tips of his fingers are on my waist, on my breasts, on my legs. He rips my nylon pantyhose.

‘You’re tired, hey? I’ll show you tired!’

Alina does have Aunt Theresa to turn to. Of course Alina is banking on her aunt’s elevated position to help her in her troubles, but the aunt is also a great believer in superstitions, magic and Romanian folklore preferring to rely on them when attempting to advise Alina.

You’d think that the rain has come, a fearful storm, if you listened to the claps of the hands, the snap of fingers, the wooden spoons drumming into cauldrons, but the dust, this dry dust rises to my thighs, barely licking my belly, an indecent lover aroused by the fact that the entire village is watching us, singing:

Paparuda, ruda,

Vino de na uda-

And they sing faster, faster, faster, and my feet are spinning, and I have no power over them as I leap and jump…

Besides the relationship between Alina and Liviu, the other central focus of the novel is Alina’s relationship with her mother.

It’s a difficult relationship that causes great turmoil to Alina. The mother jumps at whatever chance she gets to berate Alina, and yet cannot do without her company. As the novel progresses, certain events develop which set Alina completely against her mother. And yet, when she decides to deal with the situation in a certain way, she is racked by feelings of tremendous guilt.

Will Alina and Liviu’s relationship survive these trials and tribulations? Will Alina and her mother make amends?

Bottled Goods is a wonderful story told in a unique style. The flash fiction format works very well and the author has used this medium to tell her tale in myriad ways. Sometimes, the narrative is in the first person – told by Alina, in other pieces the tale is told in the third person. Some other flash pieces comprise diary entries, lists, tables and Romanian folklore making for a wonderful reading experience.

The impact of folklore in the lives of Rumanian people is also dominant in the novel. Romanians are great believers – the older generation especially – in superstitions, and rituals, and even in the mysterious figure called Saint Friday.

There are a dozen of them in the clearing, ghostly silhouettes in their white skirts and shirts, with their embroidered vests and necklaces made of golden coins, or at least so it seems from the bush where Alina is hiding.

Forgotten are their dances, the hops, the swings in their hips, the circles they draw with their toes, their twirls and whirls. They gather in a circle and begin spinning, faster, faster, faster, until their very contours fade and the clearing seems an impressionistic picture of itself with the ghostly essence of the Sanziene slipping from them and imbibing the woods, the grass, the creek.

This suffuses the novel with an enchanting, fairy-tale like feel. In fact, in a major plot development, elements of magical realism are introduced but because of the force of the narrative and doses of folklore already sprinkled upon us earlier, it does not seem jarring, in fact it becomes quite believable.

In a way, all of this – the folklore, the magic realism – in their own way help in blunting the horror of Communism and Soviet rule, which probably in a straightforward narrative would have been hard to digest.

Shadows on the Tundra – Dalia Grinkeviciute (tr. Delija Valiukenas)

Peirene Press is an interesting publisher. In 2016, three of its books made it into my Best of the Year list.

Every year, Peirene publishes three translated books from Europe, all bound together by a theme. The 2018 one is called ‘Home in Exile’ and I have already reviewed the first title in this series – the wonderful Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk. It is set in Latvia under Soviet occupation.

And now we have the second one – Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkeviciute, superbly translated by Delija Valiukenas. And the author’s country of origin? Lithuania.

I can confidently say that this book will find a place in my Best of 2018 list.

Shadows on the Tundra
Peirene Press Edition (‘Home in Exile’ Series Book Two)

Shadows on the Tundra is an incredible tale of the author Dalia’s hard and unbearable years in a Soviet gulag when she was a young girl, and her indomitable spirit and will to survive no matter what.

In 1941 at the height of the Second World War, many Lithuanians were deported from Kaunas in Lithuania to a harsh prison camp in the unforgiving Siberian tundra. There, all of them were forced to work in deplorable and inhuman conditions.

The author Dalia was 14 at the time she was deported along with her mother and brother Juozas.

Here is how the book opens…

I’m touching something. It feels like cold iron. I’m lying on my back…How beautiful…the sunlight…and the shadow.

I am aware that a phase of my life has come to an end, a line drawn underneath it. Another is beginning, uncertain and ominous. Twenty-four people lie nearby. Asleep?

It becomes evident that the deportees are not taken directly to the camp, but with several stops along the way. The first few pages describe this journey, with the deportees having no clue what their final destination will be. In fact, many are in denial and harbor considerable hope that they are being transported to America, that free land.

It’s only when they reach Trofimovsk, the site of the gulag much above the Arctic Circle that the harsh reality sets in.

To say life in the gulag is hard is an understatement. It is deep winter. The tundra is excruciatingly cold and blizzard after blizzard keeps pounding the region.

Sky and earth clash. Our barracks shake. Whirling like a dervish in the spaces between the ceiling boards, the snow descends in a vortex on the people huddled and shivering beneath their tatters. The polar elements sweep across the tundra, obliterating everything that is alive. The din outside merges into one deafening rumble of sound. The savage elements are clamouring for atonement.

In such an environment, Dalia describes the horrific and squalid conditions they are forced to live in. There is no ready habitation. The deportees have to build their barracks themselves right from scratch.

Then there is the work itself. It involves pulling logs tied by ropes from the mouth of the river and up a steep hill. It’s a grueling job, and quite simply back-breaking. And not something a young girl can manage in ordinary circumstances.

But Dalia pushes on through determination and sheer force of will. In fact, her strength of character and her courage shines on every page and makes the book quite incredible.

…that somewhere life is free and beautiful. I feel myself getting stronger, more determined; my desire to live, to fight, to endure intensifies. I want to take life by the horns, I want to take charge of it rather than have it knock me about. We’ve got a life to live yet, Dalia, and a battle to fight. Life may be a cruel enemy, but we will not surrender. So what if I’m only fifteen.

And then there is something to look forward to – school. Hours spent in school are the brightest points of the day for her, but this period of solace does not last for long.

Not everybody makes it through though. The deportees are treated badly. They are made to work hard but are fed poorly. Famine and starvation rule the roost. Diseases are just around the corner. Many of the deportees don’t survive and the corpses keep piling up.

The landscape is bleak and desolate.

Ahead of us is the mouth of the Lena River, which is several kilometres wide and fettered in ice. Wherever the wind has cleared the snow, the ice is as smooth as a mirror. We hear booming, a sound like muted cannon going off. That’s the ice quaking. Huge fissures appear that reach down its entire depth.

Dalia observes her fellow deportees and exhibits keen insight on their characters. These are people who had a life back in Lithuania – they were individuals, they were unique in their own way and had hopes and dreams.

All of that is reduced to nothing in the gulag. There is nothing to distinguish them, they are treated like a herd of cattle. Through sheer desperation, cheating and stealing become the order of the day. But Dalia understands this and chooses not to judge. After all, everyone is looking to just about survive.

What makes Dalia keep going is her spirit and zest for life. Hope sustains her and she refuses to give up.

Oddly, I never thought that I might die. I believed absolutely that no matter what the future had in store, I would survive. It was as simple as that. During the days that followed, a kind of tenacity began to take shape as part of my character. I felt a growing desire to confront life, to grapple with it, to prevail. I was convinced of my survival.

Even in the cold tundra, she manages to find moments of beauty.

Yet what splendor above. The northern lights are a magnificent web of colour. We are surrounded by grandeur: the immense tundra, as ruthless and infinite as the sea, the vast Lena estuary backed up with ice; the colossal, 100-metre-pillar caves on the shores of Stolby; and the aurora borealis.

And there are always some nostalgic moments – the happy life she led in Lithuania and the prospect of an exciting and full life ahead. Little did she know what fate had in store for her!

They say that it is during adversities that a person’s mettle is really tested. Dalia goes through hell but she fights back and that alone makes her truly extraordinary and extra special. While Shadows on the Tundra gives a horrific glimpse of Soviet cruelty, it is Dalia’s resilience and unbreakable spirit that makes her tale gut-wrenching and yet ultimately quite uplifting.

 

Soviet Milk – Nora Ikstena (tr. Margita Gailitis)

I always wait for a new Peirene Press title to be released. Peirene’s mantra is to publish the best of contemporary European literature and these come in the form of novellas, which when compelling can be devoured in a couple of sittings. A couple of years ago, three of their titles made it to my Best of the Year list.

For 2018, the theme is ‘Home in Exile’ and once again I found a winner in the first book in the series Soviet Milk.

Soviet Milk
Peirene Press Edition (‘Home in Exile’ Series Book One)

Soviet Milk is a poignant tale of a mother and her daughter and the difficult life they are forced to live in Latvia, which is under Soviet occupation. It explores the notion of motherhood, oppression, the freedom to choose one’s calling in life and the frustration of living in exile.

The novel is set over a period of time – from 1944 to the fall of the Berlin Wall – and is narrated in the first person and alternates between the central character (the mother) and her daughter. The characters are not named and to us they are referred to as the mother, the daughter and the grandmother.

Here’s how it begins, it is the daughter talking:

I don’t remember 15 October 1969. There are people who swear they remember their birth. I don’t. It’s likely that I was well positioned in my mother’s womb, because the birth was normal. Not particularly long, or particularly short, with the last contractions coming every five minutes. My mother was twenty-five, young and healthy. Her mental state, though, was not so healthy, as I learned later.

And then we hear from her mother:

I don’t remember 2 October 1944, but I can reconstruct it. Riga has been liberated from the Nazis. Bombs have shattered the maternity ward’s windows. It is damp and cold, and the women who have just given birth helplessly wrap themselves in their bloodied sheets. Exhausted nurses and doctors are bundling up dead newborns and drinking as they work. An epidemic that everyone is calling nasal typhoid fever is raging through the hospital. Sounds of wailing, bombs whistling in the air and, through the windows, the smell of burning. My mother has sneaked me out of the ward, bound to her chest, and is squirting her milk into my nose.

The mother’s life is chaotic right from the start. When she is very young, a group of soldiers suddenly arrive and start destroying her father’s spruce trees. When he protests, he is taken away, never to be seen for a while. The grandmother manages to hide in the cupboard with the mother and saves them both. Later with no news of the grandfather, the grandmother marries again. The mother now has a stepfather.

The mother, meanwhile, grows up to become a brilliant doctor working in the maternity hospital. But, she is a rebel and never really adjusts to life under Soviet rule with its rules, restrictions and set ways of doing things. She feels trapped and claustrophobic.

There is an incident where she meets a young woman stuck in an abusive marriage, but who is desperately trying to conceive. Using groundbreaking techniques (which we know today as IVF), the mother manages to impregnate the woman.

And yet, despite her intelligence, and her ability to experiment and excel, there is no recognition for the mother in her profession. On the contrary, her intellectual endeavors are always thwarted.

Later, when circumstances force her to commit murder, she is banished to the countryside and forced to eke out a living, working in an ambulatory centre there.

The daughter, meanwhile, tries to copes with her mother’s erratic moods. She adjusts to life under Soviet rule better somehow and ironically ends up being the one taking care of her mother.

But mother and daughter have their good moments too.

Sometimes she (the mother) would come home unexpectedly early, roast a crackling chicken and bake a delicious apple cake. We would eat while the dog waited under the table for tasty morsels. My mother would tell me strange stories, things no one had ever told me before. She said that we had once been free.  

Clearly, both of them share a strange bond. We get a glimpse of this right at the beginning when the daughter is a baby. The mother refuses to breast feed her and instead disappears for five days. It is the mother’s way of rebelling against the State. She does not want to feed her baby with milk that is poisoned by the State.

Throughout the story, milk is a recurring theme. There is the title of course. And then the mother’s refusal to breastfeed her baby. And then later, the daughter grows up to be lactose-intolerant and the mere smell of milk nauseates her.

Despite her mother’s moods, and descent into depression, the daughter is more positive and pragmatic as she goes about her life. She also finds relief in the strong attachment she shares with her grandmother and step grandfather. Yet, her beliefs in the State are tested when under the tutelage of a brilliant teacher, her eyes are opened to a whole new world of knowledge and ideas.

Soviet Milk then is a very powerful and touching novella about the debilitating impact of occupation.

The mother, in particular, is yearning for freedom…

…there was something of the flower child in my mother. She wasn’t afraid of experimenting with herself and spend periods in a haze – whether through the use of some substance or thanks to her refusal to countenance the place and time in which she was fated to be alive. I remember her once, drunk on wine and high in a field of dandelions by the hippodrome, where the horses no longer raced. For her the hippodrome was evidence of some other, carefree and unfettered life. She ran through the dandelions like a young mare, and I skipped alongside getting under her feet.

She has what it takes to forge ahead in her chosen profession but is stalled at every turn. She feels isolated not just physically – from her family who loves her – but also mentally. There seems to be no way out.

Soviet Milk also focuses on the relationship between the three generation of women – the grandmother, the mother and the daughter. As the mother gradually sinks into depression, the daughter comes to rely on her grandmother for love and the desire for life.

This is another strong novella from the Peirene stable, and a cracking start for the 2018 ‘Home in Exile’ series.

Translation credits from the Latvian go to Margita Gailitis.