A caveat to begin with: it has been a while since I finished reading Ralf Rothmann's latest novel, Im Frühling sterben. I wasn't sure what to write about it and so I didn't write anything. Now, though, I've noticed the book has stayed in my mind and I want to get it off my chest (where is it, then, mind or chest? Certainly somewhere I'd rather it wasn't).
The novel is possibly the story of Rothmann's own father; certainly, some critics seem to think so. Teenagers in 1944 but nominally protected from conscription by their apprenticeships as milkers – essential to the war effort – Walter Urban and his friend Fiete Caroli are pressed into signing up "voluntarily" to the Waffen-SS. They leave bucolic northern Germany and are sent first on a truncated training programme and then to the eastern front, which by then is in Hungary. While Walter is put into the supplies service as a driver, rebellious Fiete has to fight. His attempt at desertion falls flat and the two boys find themselves at opposite ends of a firing squad.
After the war dissolves into chaos, Walter makes his way back to the farm but there is no job waiting for him there. He tracks down his old romance, now a cynical waitress, to start a new life. The action is bookended by a description of the narrator's taciturn miner father before his death and a scene in which the narrator, a writer, fails to find his parents' grave site in a snow-covered cemetery.
Walter, too, had made an abortive attempt to locate the place where his father was buried. This unknown grandfather figure is portrayed as utterly despicable; he was a violent husband and a sexually abusive father who joined the SS and became a concentration camp guard. We learn through a letter Walter receives on the front that he was dismissed, apparently for passing on cigarettes to prisoners, and put into a penal division as canon fodder. Duly killed, he was presumably buried close to where Walter is stationed. Having rescued a commander's son, Walter is granted leave to seek out his father's burial site, but instead of finding it he witnesses the horrors of the end of the war, the brutish SS dancing on the volcano. Our naive protagonist refuses to participate – but is he guilty by association?
I have two problems with the novel. The first is its aesthetic. Rothmann is a great favourite among translators; he writes with precision and beauty about working people and their lives, and Im Frühling sterben is no exception. His language is no doubt a joy to translate, and here too we are treated to some gorgeous passages. They describe, as ever in Rothmann's work, darkness and light; the delights of a cowshed with its smells, sounds and muted colours or a seething mass of inebriated, copulating SS men. But at some point that aesthetic tipped over, for me, and became reminiscent of an instagrammed photo with its sharp focus on one detail to the detriment of its surroundings, with all the triviality that look has now assumed. I think that moment was the book's description of an American POW camp, where soldiers have cast off their dog-tags by hanging them on the fence and the metal tags jingle in the wind like an aeolian harp. It's a very pretty image but it reminded me of the cliché of children's hands clutching at mesh used to illustrate refugee camps, where everything but the emotive – i.e. the political, the causes of the situation – fades into soft-focus.
My second issue is the "good German" trope. Walter Urban is a character so virtuous that he borders on the ridiculous. He fires only one shot during the war, and maybe not even that one. He refuses to kill innocent locals, although they die anyway. He gives food to a dying concentration camp inmate on a forced march westwards. His war crime, if you like, is not deserting, not rebelling, fighting only for his own survival and no one else's, aware of the concentration camps' existence but naive about their reality. Yes, Rothmann does raise this issue by comparing Walter and Fiete. He does gently accuse his father figure of complicity through lack of resistance, as his generation famously did. And yet by creating a character with hands so clean it's almost outlandish, he perpetuates what I see as his generation's inability to go that step further and recognize their fathers as war criminals.
Let's think a little about the German family myth. The anecdotes vary between East and West. In West German family narratives, people's parents and grandparents simply didn't know the extent of the Nazis' crimes; they were allegedly unaware of the camps and kept ignorant of the atrocities on the front. In East Germany, so the narrative goes, fathers and grandfathers were in some way active in the resistance. It takes a brave person, and a brave writer, to imagine their father or grandfather as a swine or a convinced fascist, and I've been told countless stories that people – understandably – use to deal with the burden of possible familial guilt: a grandmother may have been raped, meaning they aren't the biological descendants of their SS grandfathers; their fathers were called up late in the war and were practically children at the time (see Günter Grass); their grandfathers were conscripted but had previously been socialists or even put into concentration camps at the beginning of the Nazi regime (this did happen but it doesn't mean those soldiers were necessarily paragons of virtue once they got to the front). Opa war kein Nazi. No one wants to be descended from a war criminal, and perhaps that's what makes the "good German" such an enduringly popular trope in fiction and film.
Rothmann appears to be no exception. I'm not sure how far he reflects on this himself. It might be that Walter's sudden sympathy for his dead bastard of a father is a nod to the writer's own desire to paint his protagonist in such glowing colours, comparatively speaking; as a coward but a virtuous one. The narrator's stumbling around the snowy graveyard might be pointing us in that very direction. And yet, and yet. If a father refuses to talk about his war experiences, as was common and is the case within the narrative, a child can choose what to imagine. I would say Inka Parei's What Darkness Was is a braver confrontation of possible parental guilt, although less obvious about doing so. But I would say that because I translated it.
English-language rights have sold to Picador in the UK and FSG in the US/Canada, so you'll have a chance to make your own mind up even if you don't speak German. The book is doing very well in Germany, so much so that there were howls of frustration when it emerged that Rothmann asked for it not to be submitted for the German Book Prize. I'm sure Anglophone readers will go for it too; perhaps this will be the book that makes a name for Rothmann in English. If you'd like to read his beautiful writing without the sour aftertaste, I recommend seeking out Young Light (tr. Wieland Hoban) or Fire Doesn't Burn (tr. Mike Mitchell).