A reluctant German soldier wades through the final days of the second world war.
Walter Urban is a teenager in 1945, an apprentice on a dairy farm, when he is forced to volunteer for the SS. The war is in its final stages and Germany has begun to run out of soldiers: now, the very young and the very old must fight. Rothmann’s (Fire Doesn’t Burn, 2012, etc.) haunting new novel describes Walter’s experiences during these final months of the war. Assigned to a supply unit, he manages to avoid the front line, serving instead as a driver. The horrors of the war seem to flicker at the corners of his vision. In a field he notices a dozen starving rabbits, “so thin that their ribs showed, and their eyelids were swollen nearly shut,” while a buzzard circles above them. He drives past the bodies of German deserters, strung from the trees like ornaments. This last sight turns out to be a bad omen: Walter’s best friend, Fiete, a smart, caustic boy, critical of the war (“Any idiot can destroy and kill,” he says), eventually tries to run away. Rothmann’s writing is spare and vivid, nearly cinematic. It is also crucial: German accounts of WWII have been relatively rare and slow in coming, especially when it comes to descriptions of their country's own suffering. Rothmann is unflinching in his accounts of both German atrocities and misery. All of this by itself would have made for a spectacular novel, but there is yet another layer to the narrative: it begins and ends a generation later, as Walter is dying. His grown son has given Walter—now a silent, heavy-drinking man—a notebook in which to write his memories. But Walter has left the notebook nearly blank, leaving his son alone to fill in the gaps.
Searing, haunting, incandescent: Rothmann’s new novel is a vital addition to the trove of wartime fiction.