KALTENBURG by Marcel Beyer


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Ornithologists single-mindedly pursue their vocation in post–World War II East Germany; a sui generis third novel from the German author. 

Hermann Funk’s destiny is ordained when the scared child notices that the bird, a swift, trapped in his living room has legs, contrary to popular belief; the future ornithologist has heeded the first rule of science: Observe. Hermann lives in Posen (today’s Poznan), where his father is a botany professor. One day in 1942 his father brings home his Viennese friend Ludwig Kaltenburg, a charismatic zoology professor based on Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz; then overnight their friendship ends, a mystery only resolved years later. In 1945 Funk hustles his family out of town to escape the oppression of Nazi faculty members. It’s their rotten luck to arrive in Dresden right before the Allies’ notorious firebombing. Eleven-year-old Hermann survives; his parents die. Their bodies are never found. Beyer tells his story obliquely; it’s a loosely chronological mosaic of memories. The omissions are disturbing. We are left to guess the extent of narrator’s Hermann pain. His difficult years with a Dresden foster family are barely glimpsed. Deliverance comes in the ’50s when father figure Kaltenburg installs him at his Dresden Institute and Hermann meets his future wife, the fearless Klara. While the primary focus is bird research, we are not allowed to forget that the ornithologists are working in the cross-currents of history; fear is pervasive in the East German police state. Kaltenburg’s glory years end when a protégé accidentally alarms a tame raven. The bird attacks. The professor intervenes, disarming his protégé before banishing him. His favoring bird over man unsettles the Institute; then the oblivious professor is dislodged by his conniving deputy. (Obvious irony: Kaltenburg has failed at observation.)  However, that striking raven scene has revealed more about Kaltenburg than all the skeletons of his World War II past, which come tumbling out at the end.

This scattershot novel could have used some livelier scenes to ensure a richer presentation of its protagonist. 

Pub Date: April 17th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-15-101397-5
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2012


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