PUNISHMENTS by Francis King


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From the prolific King (The Woman Who Was God, Frozen Music, Voices in an Empty Room, etc.), the story of a young British medical student and his classmates who spend the summer of 1948 in Germany--where a cheerful reception hides post-WW II bitterness, especially that of a young German homosexual. Michael and his friends (Mervyn and Sally, especially) are invited to a German university town, where they stay in the homes of German undergraduates to learn the culture as they debate, attend lectures, and so forth. This coming-of-age approach allows King to deal with both personal and national psychology, and to attempt to demonstrate how one influences the other. Mervyn and Michael stay with Jurgen, who is manipulative, mysterious, and very charismatic. In the early going, the book describes small pleasures, local sights, and the intellectual itinerary (at a lecture: ""Rebuilding and not destruction must now be in all our minds and hearts""). Slowly, however, comic portraits (of Marthe and Hilde, for example, two maiden aunts, and their brother ""the Professor"") darken. Stories of suffering and of the concentration camps come to light; Jurgen rapes Michael, who then loves him: ""Each day I now craved only to be with Jurgen."" King effectively choreographs a large cast of characters and leads them (via a bus trip to a town, the British are told, of cathedrals and cloisters) into a scene of desolation (the town has been flattened); afterward, Jurgen takes final sexual revenge on Michael before ditching him. Michael, years later (married to Sally), still longs for Jurgen. The ways in which the German mood determined personal relations makes for vivid social commentary, but as fiction this is predictable stuff.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1990
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton/Viking