This is Ralf Rothmann’ s eagerly awaited latest novel- eagerly awaited because its a kind of sequel to the fantastically successful Im Frühling sterben– To Die in Spring– a bestseller now translated into 25 languages. The novel deals with a similar time period, early 1945 and the last months of the second world war, and is set in the same farm outside the city of Kiel where the protagonist of Im Frühling sterben, Walter Urban, was working before being enlisted for the Front. Walter does appear as a minor character in this second novel, but it’s really the story of 12 year old Luisa and her family who are refugees from Kiel and waiting out the last months of the war at the farm.
The Norff family comprises Luisa’s mother and older sister, Sibylle, who are living in better conditions than most on the farm thanks to the intervention and protection of Vincent, a high ranking Nazi married to Luisa’s older half sister Gudrun. Luisa’s father, who runs a casino for naval officers, lives in Kiel and appears at the weekends with books for Luisa and treats for the others-Luisa’s bookishness runs through the novel and works as a kind of talisman or escape from the reality of the adult world.
Now the novel is plot light, with the narrative driven by events in Luisa’s daily life set against a background of increasing destruction and chaos. We see the deprivation and hunger suffered by the civilian population queuing up for their meagre daily milk ration on the farm. The bombing of Kiel is ever present, with fire and smoke hanging over the city. Luisa’s school is bombed and towards the end columns of refugees are seen on the streets, as well as bands of slave labourers: this is an apocalyptic account of a society on the brink of collapse. Yet against this background more personal dramas take place. Luisa falls in love for the first time with Walter, in a kind of innocent 12 year old way, Sibylle puts all her energies into making herself attractive to men, usually older and powerful. (She seems to be a victim of sexual exploitation to me). Gudrun becomes pregnant, fulfilling her duty as a Nazi wife, while her husband Vincent’s sleazy philandering slides into serious sexual assault and attempted rape.
As in Im Frühling Sterben and Junges Licht, Rothmann excels at set pieces: his depiction of the party at Vincent and Gudrun’s home with the dresses, the lavish food, the dancing, was compelling and evoked an unnerving preapocalyptic feeling. The account of the wig workshop was also powerfully uncanny-where Ole’s mother made wigs for victims of the fires in Kiel whose hair would never grow back. Rothmann has a wonderful feel for animals and I loved the tender description of Luisa’s favourite horse, Brise, broken and weary and the account of Walter and Luisa together helping to birth a calf.
Where the novel disappoints is in its characterisation. Not so much of Luisa- I enjoyed her bookish 12 year old take on the world around her and of course as in Junges Licht, with a protagonist of the same age, there is often an interesting gap between her innocent view and the adult readers’ interpretation of sexual undercurrents. It was other characters I found unsatisfactory. I got bored with the focus on Sibylle’s attempts to glam up and the repetitive and sometimes laboured dialogue between her and her sisters on their likely success with men. And I found Gudrun and others, for example the Nazi teacher, rather one dimensional vehicles for Nazi ideology. So I found I had little invested in the characters and their fates, apart from Luisa.
Now I should mention that there is a second narrative thread running through the novel. The main story is interleaved with an account by a fictional chronicler of the Thirty Years’ War. The language, which is of that time, I’ll confess to finding difficult here and my engagement was not helped by the gruesomeness of some of the atrocities recounted. Think Goya’s sketches of the Peninsular Wars. I guess if I’d worked harder at these parts they may have helped me understand the ending of the novel a little better.
So I was a little disappointed by this novel, given how much I’ve enjoyed the other two I’ve read by Ralf Rothmann. It may be that I’d like a break from war narratives, especially at the moment with terrible conflicts in the world and the rise of populism. I’ve been wondering too why he wanted to go back to this story, having done it so brilliantly in Im Frühling sterben. Personally, I think I’ll go back to his earlier books, Milch und Kohle and Stier. But, Rothmann fans, take a look at this one. You may find something there that I missed.