Review published on July 1, 2017.
There is a lot of excitement around the publication of this German novel set during the close of the Second World War. It was lauded on publication across Europe: ‘…this masterpiece’ (Radiche Zeitung – Germany), ‘the finest novel about the end of the Second World War in years…” (El Pais, Spain). So I was a little wary about being let down after such a big build up, but I needn’t have worried. Even judged by the highest standards of contemporary European fiction this novel is a powerful, intelligent and engaging read. A fine addition to literature on the theme of the pity of war – the tragedy and lasting human cost of conflict. To Die in Spring packs an emotional force, understanding of the human spirit and beguiling story telling. Some books make you feel like a grown up and this is one such. To Die in Spring is a very German tale; there are aspects of culture and circumstance that make it so, questions that can only be posed in the light of Nazism (guilt and acceptance). However, this is also a universal tale of love and tragedy and humanity, both poignant and touching. It is an anti-war tale of power and grace.
To Die in Spring creates it’s own bubble and as a reader you are temporarily lost in another world. For me an all too brief experience, but this novel will resonate for some time. The prose is spare, almost light on the page, with a flair for simple but powerful description which conveys the gravitas of the story (El Pais notes it’s ‘lyrical realism’). To Die in Spring is elegantly translated by Shaun Whiteside, who has caught the intent of the author – the heart of the original text. Rothmann’s authentic voice is evident all the way through the novel. To Die in Spring takes one long sitting to read; it is a brief novel. Although I wish it were longer I know that one of the real strengths of the novel is its lean precise prose. It is the art of the best novels to be brief and yet encompassing:
“The gate was in ruins, the stables were nothing but a pile of rubble and even many of the old olive trees along the wall were charred or in splinters.”
The scene is set; this is the landscape Walter is walking into.
To Die in Spring is the story of two young friends, Walter Urban and Friedrich ‘Fiete’ Caroli. They are farm hands in northern Germany as the war draws to a close. In another novel this would just be a right of passage tale, young men, their girls and growing up in a rural community amidst the usual grief and joy that life presents. The difference here is that the war is all pervading and the lessons the boys face are dominated by the coming catastrophe. The war has moulded their lives, but it has not been personal in the way that it will be. Walter wants to take his girl Liesel to the local dance, the Reich Food Estate is providing the beer, his friend Fiete and the other young people will be there. The dance is a trap, the hall is full of soldiers, Walter bumps into an officer in the kitchen: “He wore the red ribbon of the Iron Cross in his button hole, and was stirring a cup of tea.”
The writing is innocent and yet slightly menacing at the same time. The officer looks at Walter: “War effort….Hard to believe! Young and healthy, and hanging out in the milk parlour. Don’t you have women to do that sort of thing around here?” An almost benign observation, but nothing is innocuous this night. For Walter, this is a portentous meeting because later that same officer is recounting the virtues of becoming comrades in arms to protect the Fatherland, to the crowded hall: “Where we are, there is victory” … “because we have the right attitude, a sense of honour…..It isn’t mere sermonising by bloodless moralists” … “we thought of the Barbarian hordes, of the Bolshevik menace and our innocent children, we shook the dirt from our shoulders and charged on – on to victory.” This is one of many passages that help us to understand the Nazi mentality even in defeat (self-justification, delusion, evil?).
Then the mayor addresses the young men, albeit in sugary terms, they are dared into signing up, inveigled into the Waffen-SS. The army they are joining, established by the corrupt political culture of Nazism is now jaded, desperate, and after years of indoctrination and dehumanisation a crumbling wreck. Walter becomes a driver supplying ammunition, food and men to the front. Fiete is less lucky and is sent directly into the action, where he is wounded. The two young men are caught up in the desperate conflict as the fighting comes to German soil. It is a measure of the writing that even though the reader can guess where the story is heading, it is as inevitable as it is tragic, the intensity does not falter. The reader is with these two young men to the bitter end.
The brutality of war is always worst when the innocent are the victims. The situation in Germany appears for many to be different. They will question ‘who is innocent?’ Equally even when guilt is established there is still the question of just punishment, not retribution and revenge. It is clear that the two young men at the heart of the novel are little more than boys. Walter is loyal and thoughtful, while Fiete is brash, witty, free-spirited, independent but is he brave or foolhardy and reckless? Typical teenagers, 17 and 18 years old. Neither fully understands the consequences at the start of the novel, but it is brutally brought home to them. Walter’s first introduction to action is not in on the battlefield. We see them as they are, Rothmann at no time makes excuses for their actions.
The two lives stand as a microcosm of the tragedy of the wider war. It raises questions about what we would do in the same circumstances. It is one of the master strokes of the novel that the depiction of German suffering is vivid but not self-pitying. That cruelty and culpability does not induce glib moralising. A truth we have often not wanted to face here and in America is the pitiable plight of the German people at the end the war – unimaginably cruel and the treatment often vindictive. The writer Kurt Vonnegut was haunted by the human tragedy of the Allied bombing of Dresden. Historical accounts of the fall of Germany, such as Anthony Beevor’s Berlin, provide terrible details of the fall of the city to the Russians. The brutality and cruelty inflicted could never be justified. Rothmann was born after the war and this story does not wallow in self-pity. Nor does To Die in Spring shy away from the guilt associated with the war, the conduct of the German people and state. Most people were squeezed between the unyielding narcissism and control of their own leaders and the vengeful invaders, who rarely distinguished between ordinary German people and the Nazi zealot. Yet there is always responsibility and accountability, Rothmann has done his part to give the war generation back it’s story, it’s truth, while distinguishing that later generations do not have to carry that burden for their fathers’ guilt. Rothmann has examined the guilt of the war generation without reducing this work to a polemic. A novel that exposes the relationship between fathers of the war generation and their post war offspring (Rothmann makes Walter’s son a writer). This book is a triumph because he has been able to tell a story of the war that is free from personal guilt, a guilt no post war German should have to bare. So the writer is a compassionate author who happens to be a German and writing like this may give a sense of freedom from the past to other writers to tell their stories too.
Rothmann is a well known literary figure in his native Germany, a poet and dramatist as well as novelist. This is his eighth novel, although sadly only Fire Doesn’t Burn (2012) has previous been translated into English. Readers may also find Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing (2016) interesting.
Paul Burke 5/5
To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann
Picador 9781509812851 hbk Jul 2017
To be a Machine by Mark O’Connell
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