It can be hard, when reading books in translation, to disentangle the intentions of the author from the later decisions of the translator. Charlotte Collins also worked on Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life; her award-winning translation is supple and pellucid, a tour de force of tact and skill. Homeland, interestingly, is not such a smooth read. Throughout, there is an instability around free indirect speech, and there are some unattributed lines of spoken dialogue, too. The result is a slightly distancing sense of uncertainty about who is telling the story and how we should relate to it – which may have been deliberate on Kempowski’s part.
Homeland isn’t in the same league as All for Nothing; few novels are. But it takes us back to the same place, the shuffling procession of refugees in East Prussia in 1945. And it allows itself one glorious, ghostly lift-off when Jonathan visits the site where his father (and Kempowski’s) died, on the Vistula Spit. Journeying there has been a Vergangenheitsbewältigung for Jonathan, a coming to terms with the past. But picturing his father in a Wehrmacht uniform, cigarette in his mouth, just before the bomb went off, doesn’t bring closure: that would be too bland – both Homeland and All for Nothing end with a question mark, as if much remains to be puzzled out. But there’s comfort of sorts for Jonathan’s father who, sensing that someone is ‘gathering up his final seconds’, rises from the mud where he has lain for forty-odd years, sees who it is, then – knowing that he hasn’t, after all, been forgotten – sinks back into the mud. ‘“It was my son, looking for me,” he whispered to his comrades. And they passed the message on: “His son was looking for him.”’
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he emotional punch of Kempowski’s satirical narrative lurks throughout. Homeland, first published in Germany under the grittier title Mark und Bein (“Marrow and Bone”) in 1992, now out in English for the first time, remains fresh, wise, very funny and intuitive. History is everywhere, as is mankind’s bad behaviour. Jonathan agrees to go on the trip, knowingly journeying back to where his young mother died in childbirth as the family fled westwards from the Russians, leaving him to be raised by his uncle. The other image Jonathan has lived with is that of his young soldier father being killed in crossfire on the Vistula Spit, a beautiful peninsula on the Baltic Sea, near Gdańsk. Kempowski’s soldier father also died there.
This elegant, unsettling novel about the legacy of Nazi Germany was first published in Germany in 1992 and appears in English for the first time in an excellent, readable translation. Jonathan Fabrizius is a slightly pointless man of letters sent to Poland to write about the cultural attractions along the route of a car rally. Along the way he confronts his family’s Nazi past.
Kempowski’s artfully naive style delivers wince-making moments of sly satire: taking a party to visit Hitler’s command bunker in the Masurian woods, the German guide “informed the Polish cashier that they all deeply regretted the fact that Germans had done so many dreadful things to her motherland” but that doesn’t stop him asking for a group ticket discount... Homeland, first published in 1992, is only the third to be widely available in English. It is darkly excellent.