Review published on May 19, 2017.
This novel is powerful, intelligent and an engaging read. A fine novel on the theme of the pity of war. To Die in Spring packs an emotional punch, it is also a beguiling story. The novel is very German, addressing questions posed by Nazism about guilt and responsibility. It is also a universal tale of love, tragedy and humanity – both poignant and touching. It is an anti-war tale of power and grace.
To Die in Spring is short, but the novel resonates; the prose is spare, with a flair for simple but powerful description which conveys gravitas (El Pais notes it’s ‘lyrical realism’). It is elegantly translated by Shaun Whiteside, capturing the meaning in the original text. Rothmann’s voice is evident throughout the novel. One of the real strengths is its lean precise prose. It is the art of the best novels to be brief and yet encompassing.
To Die in Spring is the story of young friends, Walter Urban and Friedrich ‘Fiete’ Caroli, farm hands in northern Germany as the war draws to a close. In another novel this would just be a rights of passage tale, young men, their girls and growing up in a rural community amidst the usual grief and joy that life presents. Here the war is all pervading, fates are dominated by the coming catastrophe. The war has moulded their lives, but it has not been personal in the way that it soon will be. Walter takes his girl, Liesel, to the local dance, his friend Fiete and the other young people will be there. The dance is a trap, the hall is full of soldiers, an officer addresses the crowd. The dance is one of the passages that help us to understand the Nazi mentality even in defeat (self-justification, delusion, evil?). The young men are dared into signing up, inveigled into the Waffen-SS. The army is now jaded, desperate and after years of indoctrination and dehumanisation, a crumbling wreck. Walter becomes a supply driver. Fiete is sent into action; he is wounded. The two young men are caught up in the desperate conflict as the fighting comes to German soil. We are with these two young men to the bitter end.
To Die in Spring asks, ‘who is innocent?’’ What constitutes just punishment (not retribution and revenge)? It is clear the two young men are little more than boys. Walter is loyal and thoughtful, while Fiete is brash, free-spirited, independent, but is he brave or foolhardy? Typical teenagers, 17 and 18 years old. Neither fully understands consequences, but it is brutally brought home to them. We see them as they are, Rothmann makes no excuses for their actions. What would we do in the same circumstances? The depiction of suffering is vivid but not self-pitying. Cruelty and culpability do not induce glib moralising. Rothmann was born after the war. To Die in Spring does not shy away from war guilt, the conduct of the German people and state – responsibility and accountability. However, it distinguishes that later generations do not have to carry the burden for their fathers’ guilt. So this is a compassionate novel that may give a sense of freedom from the past to other writers to tell stories too.
Paul Burke 5/5
To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann
Picador 9781509812851 hbk Jul 2017