A German family struggles for survival in the Venezuelan jungle after World War II, in a story thick with bloodshed and allegory.
Erich, the narrator of the second novel by Krol (Callisto, 2009), is a 16-year-old boy forced to grow up fast. His father died on the Russian front, and with no prospects in a decimated Nazi Germany, his mother opts to uproot Erich and his younger brother Zeppi and move to Venezuela. There she marries her brother-in-law Klaus. It’s purely a marriage of convenience (Klaus is a former SS officer eager to obscure his work in the concentration camps), and as if to punish the family for its inauthenticity, their plane crashes into a river deep in the jungle. They’re soon discovered by the Yayomi, a tribe that welcomes them thanks only to Gerhard Wentzler, a German researcher who’s been living with the natives while the Nazis laid waste to Europe. Wentzler soothes the Yayomi by saying the new arrivals are nonthreatening “dolphin people,” but, this being a story of culture clashes, the strategy doesn’t last long. Krol’s twist on lost-in-nature stories like Life of Pi and The Mosquito Coast is to emphasize Erich’s pubescent obsession with sex, manliness and authority, along with his immaturity (he clings to his dad’s Iron Cross, not to mention his anti-Semitism). That makes for a sometimes unseemly amount of detail about bodily functions, as Krol details the tribe’s bathroom behavior and Erich’s intimate relationship with a young native woman; moreover, Zeppi turns out to be a hermaphrodite, and terrifyingly bloodthirsty creatures lurk in the river. But Krol is admirably determined to explore the pure primal essence of each of his characters, and however off-putting some plot points might be, his writing is sharp, capturing the emotional zigzagging of his adolescent narrator without losing his grip on the plot. With the theme of anti-Semitism slowly becoming more amplified as the story moves along, Krol expertly turns his adventure story into a pointed commentary on the nature of tribal hatred.
An unflinching, nightmarish fable with plenty of smarts behind it.