A vast novel—if novel it is—of the tangled lives of anti-Nazi Germans on the Spanish island of Majorca in the years leading up to World War II.
Some of those Germans were communists, others Jews; all were destined to be denounced, and many killed, when Franco’s soldiers finished their fascist revolution with the help of the Third Reich. That’s a grim matter of history, but Thelen (1903–1989) is anything but grim for much of this book, which was published in Germany in 1953 and has enjoyed a somewhat uneasy stance as a classic ever since—somewhat uneasy, that is, because it deals with matters that many Germans of the time would have just as soon forgotten. Even on dark matters, though, Thelen squeezes in unlikely jokes “A Spaniard who is ready to shoot today instead of tomorrow—how very odd!” he exclaims. Or rather, his alter ego, named Vigoleis and married, as was Thelen, to a woman named Beatrice, exclaims. To call this a roman à clef is to risk making too much of the connection between the author’s life and that of his protagonist, though one wonders whether this book is fictional in the same sense that Kenneth Rexroth’s An Autobiographical Novel is fiction—that is to say, not much at all. Whatever the case, Vigoleis is a sharp-eyed observer of his fellow Germans, both those on the island and those left far back home in the untender hands of Herr Hitler. Vigoleis may wish for detachment—he describes early on his “congenital aversion to contact with the external world”—but he becomes the unlikely center of a wheel whose spokes are both Spanish and German, and he is expected to perform miracles on behalf of all concerned. Of one clergy-hating Majorcan who asks him to invent a gallows that could humanely kill a priest “in a single stroke,” he notes, “I referred him to my fellow countrymen in the Third Reich, who were now the experts in mass executions.” Fortunately, Vigoleis—like Thelen in real life—manages to get away before he himself is the subject of an execution, leaving behind his beloved island, not quite a paradise but not quite a slaughterhouse, foreboding imagery notwithstanding.
Worthy of a place alongside On the Marble Cliffs, Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Death of Virgil and other modernist German masterworks; a superb, sometimes troubling work of postwar fiction, deserving the widest possible audience.