The late German author serves up a bleak tale of the final days of World War II as a down-on-its-luck family prepares for worse to come.
Eberhard von Globig is a Sonderführer stationed in Italy, his job to ransack the country of its best foods and wines, while his wife, Katherina, “famous as a languorous beauty, black-haired and blue-eyed,” is left to run his rattletrap East Prussian estate. As Kempowski (Swansong 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich, 2015, etc.) quickly makes clear, though, the person who is really in charge is called “Auntie,” “a sinewy old spinster with a wart on her chin” whose resourcefulness is not to be underestimated. At the center of the story, with all its roman à clef elements, is 12-year-old Peter, who would rather be doing anything than mandatory service in the Hitler Youth. Keeping a disapproving eye on him is Drygalski, the manager of a nearby estate, who, though mourning a dead son and tending to a sick wife, has plenty of time to spy on the von Globigs and their suspiciously multiethnic household, with its Polish handyman and Ukrainian maids. Into this odd scene, as Russian guns rumble on the horizon, comes a steady flow of refugees and dispossessed people: a mixed family whose sons, half Jewish, “had been dreadfully sad because they couldn’t join the Hitler Youth,” a political economist, an artist, a musician, and others. For a time it seems as if the war might bypass this odd congeries of people, as if somehow taking pity, but in time events catch up to them in the form of bullets, bombs, and columns of ghostlike people bound for the camps a step ahead of the advancing Red Army—about whom a schoolmaster remarks to Peter, hopefully, “The Russians had been here in the First War, too, and had behaved decently.”
Memorable and monumental: a book to read alongside rival and compatriot Günter Grass’ Tin Drum as a portrait of decline and fall.