The father, Eberhard, has an administrative post in Italy. On the night he phones his wife, Katharina, urging her to pack up and leave, she’s just taken in a fugitive, perhaps the most decisive act of her sheltered life. When the Jew moves on the next day, Katharina relaxes back into her usual stupor. The cart stands loaded up with possessions and, through his father’s binoculars, twelve-year-old Peter watches the world on the move along the road between Georgenhof and the modern housing estate, but still the family stays put.
News comes to Georgenhof via a stream of visitors seeking refuge from the freezing temperatures and via Katharina’s radio illicitly tuned to the BBC. They bring with them their selected possessions and their nostalgia, reminiscent of the objectmemories lugged around in Anna Smaill’s novel, The Chimes. Walter Kempowski indulges his characters in their need to tell their stories over and over, the pace of the novel in tune with the von Globigs’ lethargy rather than the urgency of their compatriots travelling west. Then, two thirds of the way through, the police arrive to question Katharina, and the others finally take the decision to move.
Despite the sombre subject matter, there are myriad touches of subtle humour in the characters’ obsessions, the conversations heralded by the compulsory Heil Hitlers, and the adherence to bureaucracy among the chaos. There are also, as in many well-rehearsed story historical novels, points (such as references to the striped jackets of the prisoners) in which the reader knows more than the characters.
Walter Kempowski, who died in 2007, is famous in Germany for his relentless chronicling of the Second World War, and All for Nothing, his last novel, is described by Jenny Erpenbeck, author of The End of Days, as “one of the best books I’ve ever read”. Translated by Anthea Bell, I found the pace of the first two-thirds a little too slow for my liking, although I did enjoy it overall. It reminds me of similar reads: The Undertaking as a novel of Nazi hubris, Jakob’s Colours for a life on the run from Hitler’s henchmen and These Are the Names for the desperate plight of refugees. Thanks to Granta for my review copy.
Twenty years later, Estonia is back behind the Iron Curtain. Unlike most Nazi collaborators, Edgar has managed to rehabilitate himself and gain a position in the new system, writing a book about the atrocities of the Hitlerist invasion. He’s back living with Juudit, although not as man and wife, concerned that their childlessness and her alcoholism will impede his career progression. He’s assumed Roland to be dead, until he discovers a diary implying he was still at large after the purges. Determined to eliminate the threat, Edgar wonders if his wife might provide a clue to his cousin’s whereabouts.
The suspense deepens as the novel moves back and forth between the early 1940s and 1960s, revealing the degradation of this small country’s occupation by forces at the extreme ends of the political spectrum and the near-impossibility of living a moral life in such circumstances. With a stage full of unheroic characters, the story resembled The Noise of Time crossed with The Undertaking, each grappling with an extra layer of disorientation brought by the sudden switches in the dynamics of power. Although it’s quite a long novel, and the unfamiliar territory confused me at the start, I was gripped by the story and read it in a couple of days.
When the Doves Disappeared is translated from Finnish by Lola M Rogers. Thanks to Atlantic Books for my review copy.