Arno Geiger, much praised for his moving memoir of his father’s descent into Alzheimer’s, has now written a book on a much larger canvas: Unter der Drachenwand, Under the Drachenwand, set in 1944 in the last year of the Second World War. The novel in fact works on both a small and a large canvas. It’s set largely in the village of Mondsee, beneath the Drachenwand mountain, but by including letters from other characters it extends its reach to show us the wholesale destruction and devastation wrought by the Nazi regime, from Darmstadt in Germany in the west to Budapest in the east.
The main story is narrated by 23 year old Veit Kolbe, who has been seriously injured on the Eastern Front. He returns to his family in Vienna to recuperate, but can’t settle there. His wounds are a constant preoccupation, he’s suffering from flashbacks-what we would now call PTSD-and can’t stomach the platitudinous comments from his father about the imminent victory for the Reich- when the father has no idea about the carnage and chaos at the front. Veit goes off to Mondsee where his uncle works as the local police chief, rents a room from the Quartiersfrau- the woman in charge of lodgings- and while writing a journal becomes a kind of observer of Austrian village life at that time.
We’re given a canvas of locals and incomers, the latter, like Veit Kolbe, having turned up as refugees during the war. There’s a class of girls evacuated from Vienna with their teacher who march around the village in military style and threadbare clothes. There’s an eccentric Austrian called der Brasilianer, the man from Brazil, who grows orchids for sale in Salzburg in his greenhouse, and longs for the warmth and human tolerance of South America. There’s a friendly young woman refugee from Darmstadt. Margot, living next door to Veit with her baby, her husband at the front. The locals are presented as unsympathetic and unquestioning Nazi fellow travellers-suspicious of incomers and people who are different, they are harsh in their judgement of others who appear to be undermining their power or who simply don’t conform. Their stories and everyday interactions are narrated by Veit against a background of the changing seasons and winter coming on, evoking an atmosphere of normalcy. At the same time, the constant presence of enemy planes overhead, on their way to bomb Salzburg and Vienna, together with the well observed details of scarcity, let us know these times are anything but normal.
The destruction of Darmstadt is brought to us through letters to Margot from her mother and the increasing anti-semitism and persecution of the Jews first in Vienna and then in Budapest by the account of Oskar Meyer who changes his name several times. I experienced these diversions from the main narrative as interruptions at first: it wasn’t really clear whether they were letters, or a diary account, and it seemed a rather contrived device to tell us what was going on elsewhere in the Reich in 1944. However the account of the Jewish family in particular did slowly draw me in and here there was evidence of careful and meticulous historical research in the account of the atrocities committed in Hungary not by the Germans but by the horrendous Hungarian fascist group, the Arrow Cross.
The third set of inter collated texts are a series of letters from 17 year old Kurt to his 13 year old cousin, Annemarie, one of the girls evacuated to Mondsee. We learn early on that the teacher has a troubling problem on her hands: one of her charges has told the other girls that she’s in love- with her cousin. And it’s through these eager, youthful letters from Kurt to Annemarie that we get to know the background to their crush. This forbidden love and its resolution becomes one of the subplots of the novel which most intrigued me- it’s transgressive in a way different from the love affair which develops between Veit and Margot, a married woman, and one of the most striking things about it is the uproar it causes. Yet it’s also one of the many examples in the novel not just of the huge generation gap, but of how the older generation have no understanding or compassion for the younger. Annemarie’s mother is not only shocked and disapproving of her daughter’s feelings, but most concerned about how this immoral situation will reflect on her. This is a young girl very badly let down by the adults who are in charge.
There is a cyclical feel to the novel as towards the end of 1944 Veit finally acknowledges he can’t extend his sick leave any further. He goes back to barracks in Vienna and is sent off to the North East. He’s matured, he can keep his PTSD at bay and is taking less Pervitin to do so, and has developed a loving relationship with Margot and her baby. What becomes of the characters is summarised in an Afterword at the end of the novel.
There is much to admire in this novel. I felt it showed well how communities and individuals are changed by the experience of war, while their daily life continues. I liked the detailed and recurrent accounts of the physical and psychological trauma suffered by Veit Kolbe. I liked the gulf between Nazi propaganda and the reality of the imminent defeat, explored often in confrontations between the young and the old, and for me so relevant to political discourse today. But the novel did not get to me on an emotional level like, say Ralf Rothmann’s To Die in Spring, whose young protagonist is also enduring the end of the war. It’s as if the larger canvas involves sacrificing the level of intimate intensity so powerful in Ralf Rothmann’s book. And the simple syntax of the book’s beginning, presumably reflecting the hesitant penmanship of the young writer, also meant the book took a while to get into and hindered an immediate emotional connection. And what about the female characters? Both Margot and the teacher had interesting stories to tell and could have been given a voice. Nevertheless the novel has been meticulously researched to give a sobering account of the devastation of Europe, as well as the view from a small Austrian village, and so adds to the canon of literature on the Second World War.