Now that he alone of his immediate family is still alive, this remarkable German writer (The Invention of Curried Sausage, 1995, etc.) produces a group memoir that, with piercing intelligence, reawakens—and grieves over—a dreadful history.
Born in 1940 the youngest of three siblings, Timm calls himself “the afterthought” of the family, in deference to his brother, Karl-Heinz, 16 years Timm’s senior, a member at age 18 of the Death’s Head division of the SS, and dead of wounds near Kiev by late 1943. What now remains of this absent but loomingly significant older brother is only a small collection of personal items, among them a diary, kept daily during military action in Ukraine. Its omissions speak most loudly for Timm (“There is nothing about prisoners. . . . Why were they not worth mentioning?”), as does its thunderously understated final entry: “I close my diary here, because I don’t see any point in recording the cruel things that sometimes happen.” In the light of what those “cruel things” must have been, Timm, drawing on memory, family lore, and his own extensive reading, goes back into the history both of his family and of Germany itself from the 1920s on, refusing throughout to flinch, forgive, or meliorate. His father, a furrier in Hamburg, tried hard to keep up the appearance of well-being and status, but in the end, surviving into the 1950s and sinking into alcoholism, his was to be a “life that failed.” Equivalent memories of his dutiful mother and unmarried older sister strike the same note of effort, sorrow, and the unfulfilled. But above all looms the lost brother, an ever-present barrier between the surviving Timm and his grieving father, so that “my own existence was always called into question,” both by the brother as lost son, and by the brother as lost nation.
History and private life interfused utterly by a master writer in a way at once authentic, unpretentious, moving, and of extraordinary significance.