Distant, silent, often drunk, Walter Urban is a difficult man to have as a father. But his sonthe narrator of this slim, harrowing novelis curious about Walter’s experiences during World War II, and so makes him a present of a blank notebook in which to write down his memories. Walter dies, however, leaving nothing but the barest skeleton of a story on those pages, leading his son to fill in the gaps himself, rightly or wrongly, with what he can piece together of his father’s early life.
This, then, is the story of Walter and his dangerously outspoken friend Friedrich Caroli, seventeen-year-old trainee milkers on a dairy farm in northern Germany who are tricked into volunteering for the army during the spring of 1945: the last, and in many ways the worst, months of the war. The men are driven to the point of madness by what they experience, and when Friedrich finally deserts his post, Walter is forced to do the unthinkable.
Told in a remarkable impressionistic voice, focusing on the tiny details and moments of grotesque beauty that flower even in the most desperate situations, Ralf Rothmann’s To Die in Spring “ushers in the post–[Günter] Grass era with enormous power” (Die Zeit).
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Shaun Whiteside is a Northern Irish translator of French, Dutch, German, and Italian literature. He has translated many novels, including Manituana and Altai by Wu Ming, The Weekend by Bernhard Schlink, and Magdalene the Sinner by Lilian Faschinger, which won him the Schlegel-Tieck Prize for German Translation in 1997.
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Silence, deep concealment, particularly about the dead, is ultimately a vacuum that fills with truth. When I used to ask my father why his hair was so thick, he would tell me it was because of the war. They had rubbed fresh birch sap into their scalps every day, there was nothing better; it might not have helped against lice, but it smelled good. And even though a child could hardly understand the connection between birch sap and war, I didn't pursue the question; I probably wouldn't have received a more precise answer anyway, as was usually the case when my father's soldiering days came up. The answer would come only decades later, when I held photographs of soldiers' graves in my hand and saw that many, if not most of the crosses behind the front were made of young birch twigs.
My father seldom smiled, and on the rare occasions when he did, it made him look forbidding. The expression on his pale face, dominated by its strong cheekbones and green eyes, had an underlying melancholy and weariness. His backcombed dark-blond hair – close-shaved at the nape – was held in shape with Brisk, his slightly cleft chin was always smooth and the elegant sensuality of his lips seems to have unsettled a fair number of women: there were stories. His nose, slightly too short, had a barely perceptible tilt to it which added a hint of youthfulness to his profile, and at relaxed moments his face revealed a roguish warmth and an empathetic intelligence. But he himself was barely aware of his beauty, and if it had ever been pointed out to him that he was handsome, he probably wouldn't have believed it anyway.
All the neighbours liked him; he was always helpful, the word 'respectable' was often used when his name came up, his appreciative mates in the mine called him the Pickaxe Man and hardly anyone ever tried to start a fight with him. He usually wore corduroy trousers, whose velvety shimmer was lost after the very first wash, and jackets from C&A; the colours were always carefully chosen, suggesting a certain refinement in the selection process, a delight in a tasteful combination, and he would never have worn trainers or unpolished shoes, towelling socks or checked shirts. Although his posture had suffered from his hard work as a dairyman and later as a miner, he was that rare thing – an elegant manual labourer. But he had no friends, and didn't try to make any either; he lived his whole life in a silence that no one wanted to share with him – not even his wife, who had coffee with all their neighbours and went dancing without him on Saturday evenings. In spite of his bent back, his continual seriousness lent him an intimidating authority and his melancholy didn't just consist of the tedium of the daily grind, didn't stem from back-breaking labour, irritation or unfulfilled dreams. People didn't clap him on the shoulder and say, 'Come on, Walter, chin up!' His was the seriousness of someone who had seen something more potent than the others, who knew more about life than he could say and who sensed that even if he had the language to express what he had seen, there would be no redemption for him.
Haunted by his past, he cycled to the mine in all weathers and, apart from his many injuries and broken bones from rockfalls, he was never ill, never got so much as a cold. But his almost thirty years as a faceworker below ground, the countless shifts and overtime operating a compressed-air hammer on the coalface (without any kind of ear protection, as was customary at the time), meant that he lost his hearing and could hardly understand anything or anyone – apart from my mother. Even today it's a mystery to me whether it was the particular frequency of her voice or the way she moved her lips that enabled him to converse with her quite normally. Everyone else had to shout and gesticulate if they wanted to say anything to him, because he didn't have a hearing aid; he didn't like wearing one as they supposedly produced interference and painful feedback. It made communication with him very taxing and made him even more isolated, even within the family.
But I, for one, always had the impression that he wasn't unhappy in this unquestioning silence, which condensed around him more and more from one year to the next. Worn down by work in the end, prematurely retired and having quickly become an alcoholic – out of shame, I think – he asked little more from life than his newspaper and the latest crime novel from the kiosk, and in 1987, just after he had turned sixty, when the doctors informed him of his imminent death, he barely showed any concern. 'No knife is coming anywhere near my body,' he'd said even at the start of the illness, and neither his smoking nor drinking diminished in the least. He ordered his favourite meal – fried potatoes with scrambled eggs and spinach – a little less often than usual, that was all, and he took to hiding his vodka from my mother in the cellar, under the coal.
When he retired, I gave him a fine notebook with a request that he use it to sketch out his life for me, record any notable episodes from the time before I was born, but it remained almost empty. He only jotted down a few words, perhaps words that were keys to his story, foreign-sounding place names, and when, after his first stroke, I asked him to describe at least those weeks in the spring of 1945 more precisely, he wearily dismissed the request and said in a sonorous voice that seemed to ring out from the hollow of his deafness, 'What's the point? Haven't I already told you? You're the writer.' Then he scratched himself under his shirt, stared out of the window and added in an undertone, 'I hope all this shit will be over soon.'
Our inaudibility to him made us mute among ourselves; my mother and I sat for days by his deathbed without saying a word. The room had been painted lime green to head height and above the bed there hung a print of a painting by Édouard Manet, Country House in Rueil. I'd always liked the painting, not just because of its apparently weightless, almost musical execution and the summer light with which it was softly imbued even though not a scrap of sky can be seen: the ochre-coloured villa, surrounded by trees, shrubs and red flowers, with its pillared portal, also bears a passing resemblance to the manor house of the farm in northern Germany where my father did his milking apprenticeship in the early 1940s. It was there that my parents first met, and in my childhood I spent a few happy holiday weeks in the area. Relatives still lived on the nearby canal.
A manor house of the soul, on which the evening sun now fell. The plastic frame creaked in the last of the warmth, and my mother, who wasn't leaning back in her chair and whose handbag was hanging in the crook of her arm, as if she were just paying death a quick visit, set a water bottle down in the shade. Immaculate as always, having used far too much hairspray, she wore suede pumps and the midnight-blue pinstripe suit that she had made herself; when she sighed quietly I could smell a faint whiff of alcohol.
In the eighteen years that I spent living with my parents, and later, too, during my rare visits at Christmas or on birthdays, I had hardly seen a gesture of tenderness pass between the two of them, no touch or embrace, not so much as a passing kiss; instead they repeated the usual remonstrances about everyday business or shattered the furniture in a drunken frenzy. But now my mother pressed her forehead against my father's and stroked the hand of this increasingly confused man, if fleetingly, as though ashamed in front of her son, and he opened his eyes.
Still faintly rimmed by ingrown coal dust, they had been unusually big and clear for days; the sclerae shimmered like mother-of-pearl and in the dark green of his irises one could see the brown pigments. Quivering, he raised a finger and said, 'Did you hear it?'
Quite apart from his deafness, it was completely silent; not a sound came in through the window, which looked out on the blossoming gardens of the hospital, or from the corridor. Regular visiting hours were over, dinner had been served long ago and the dishes cleared shortly before. The night nurse had already done her rounds and my mother shook her head now, the movement barely noticeable, and murmured, 'Ah, now he's back in the war.'
I didn't ask how she knew. The intimacy that shone through in that knowledge was enough to tell me that it was true, and a little later he actually cried out, 'There!' and looked from one of us to the other in helpless anxiety. 'Again! Don't you hear it?' His fingers wandered in circles over his chest, snatched up his nightshirt and smoothed it flat again; he gulped, then sank back onto the pillow, turned his head towards the wall and said with his eyes closed, 'They're getting closer! If only I knew a place where we could go ...'
In my parents' Bible, a shabby leather copy full of receipts from the Schätzlein supermarket, someone had underscored a line in the Old Testament – not with a pen, but probably with the nail of a finger or thumb, and although the book, set in gothic script, has lain for decades on my shelves or in boxes, the indentation in the thin paper looks as if it was scratched there yesterday. 'When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength,' it says. 'A fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.'
In the darkness, little could be heard of the animals but the sound of their ruminating jaws or a snort behind the feeding fence. Sometimes the beam of the paraffin lamp caught a damp muzzle with black nostrils, pink inside, or cast the shadows of horns on the whitewashed wall, where they loomed sharply for two paces before fading. The nests of the barn swallows under the hayloft were still empty, but kittens already mewed unseen in the dark.
A heavy stream of urine spattered on the cement floor, and the sickly smell of maize and bran filled the rear of the building where the pregnant cows stood in individual stalls and watched big-eyed after the man in the blue overalls, who might only have been a wandering point of light for them. They remained completely motionless, and it was only when the young dairyman had gone into the churn room that a cow, almost entirely white – it had one dark patch on its thurl – gave out a loud bellow. Its tail whipped through the air.
'Calm yourself, I'm going,' Walter muttered and closed the door. The raw milk churns, two dozen or more, had been lined up by the wall. Dull grey on the outside, their interiors had been rinsed clean and dried, leaving a gleam in which you could see your reflection. But the cloth strainers lay on the floor between the apron and the rubber boots, and Walter snapped his fingers irritably and hung the lamp on the hook. Then he filled a metal vat with water, into which he poured a handful of baking soda and then put in the loosely woven cotton to soften. After stacking a few milking stools on the shelf and screwing shut a tin of sand soap, he opened the door to the farmyard.
A flock of thrushes scattered from the lime tree; the manor house was in darkness. Moth, Thamling's old dog, was asleep on the steps. The charred beams of the clock tower loomed into the purple sky, the gutter dangled. The shattered windows had been boarded up for now but the crest of the farm, a black horse below crossed sickles, still stood in the front garden. The portico was damaged too; the attacks from the fighter-bombers had revealed that the channelled columns, which had looked positively ecclesiastical, were hollow inside, only plasterboard, with mice living inside them.
Walter crossed the farmyard, walked through the smithy and opened the door to the calving stall. The sawdust on the floor swirled in a circle in the sudden draught. He lifted the paraffin lamp and read the notice on the blackboard – an announcement from the office of military supplies. Then he closed the window, knocked on the water tank and glanced into the fodder racks. There was room for over two hundred animals under the huge thatched roof, but now there were just forty Black Pied cows about to come into their first heat. He whistled softly, an inviting sound, and some of them came over to the gate, let him scratch their blazes and sucked on his thumb.
Since there were hardly any pigs left on the farm, calves were now being requisitioned. A good third of the animals already bore a chalk cross on their flanks. Walter poured a bucket full of bran into the feeding trough, closed the door behind him and crossed the avenue.
Right beside the entrance to the dairy, in the old stables, lived the refugees – each family in a loose box. In the evening stillness the voices of women and children could be heard, as well as an accordion. Although the people were forbidden to cook there, smoke rose from the barred windows and there was a smell of milk soup and hot lye.
Lines full of sheets and nappies were hung beneath the porch of the dairy and a gust of wind blew something silky into Walter's face – cool stockings and a thin embroidered shirt; Elisabeth had worn the shirt last weekend, hadn't wanted to take it off for a long time, not even after the Steinhäger gin. It was only when it was 'grubby', as she put it, that she had pulled it quickly over her head with a look of revulsion and soaked it in a basin. Naked, she had seemed even more delicate to him; almost childlike, had it not been for the tuft of gleaming black hair, and now he ran his fingertips along the shirt's pattern. No sooner had he leaned forward to sniff it, however, than a voice behind the sheet said, 'Well, is it dry yet?'
Frau Isbahner was sitting on the steps to the feed kitchen, peeling potatoes by the light of a candle. She wore fingerless gloves and a tatty coat, and her grey hair was in a bun. She had narrow lips, like the two daughters who shared her home, and when she drew her chin down to her throat her goitre swelled out; a big, gleaming growth full of spider veins. 'I was just checking on the milk,' said Walter. 'Aren't you cold?'
The woman, who had a cat sleeping beside her, nodded. 'But the air is better out here,' she murmured, and cut the sprouts out of a potato. 'So you're checking on the milk. Stickler for detail, are you? What's it going to be like, this milk of yours? White or grey, maybe a bit yellow. Cool or not so cool, sour or sweet. With cream on the top or slightly clotted. Milk has been milk since Adam and Eve, you don't need to check on it.' She threw the potato into a pot and smiled at him, her false teeth slipping. 'We won't steal anything, son. We'll manage. We're refugees, not thieves.'
He smiled awkwardly. 'No one said you were, did they? But Thamling is still in Malente, so I have to do the evening rounds. Isn't Liesel there?'
'That old fox ...' The woman clicked her tongue. 'In Malente again, so soon? I'd like to know what he gets up to when he goes out there. Still feeling his oats? Is there some young thing he's chasing after? And his wife lying sick in bed.'
Walter took out the key. 'No, it's about the tractor. They brought three men with them but only two were on the list. The third one has a form to fill in.'
She shook her head. 'Oh Lord, if it does him any good ... How many forms have I filled in about accommodation? All hogwash. He should take care they don't hold him down there and send him to the front. Once they've cashed something in, they don't pay it back out again ... they're scraping together all they can get. The Russkies are on the Oder, he might even be on his way to Berlin soon, haven't you heard?'
'No,' said Walter, and rubbed the back of his neck. 'I'm a dairyman, I know nothing about politics. And no one here listens to the foreign radio stations.'
Frau Isbahner closed one eye. 'Well, do you think I do? The pixies told me. The little things are quite mad after the spring. How they get about! They sit down with me and tell me about their lovely West Prussia, where the best wheat grew. If you baked bread on the first of the month and put it in an oak chest – always bread, bread on the bread board – it was still crisp and fresh at the end of the month.'
Walter put the key in the lock. Since the power station in Neumünster had been bombed, the milk, the curds and the butter were cooled as they had been a hundred years ago: water from the Old Eider was channelled by sluices through the narrow brick building and the churns and tubs were set in the current. Mossy planks from the gable ends meant that the level of the gully could be regulated, and once Walter had lowered it slightly he picked up the lamp and looked into the butter churns. Cream had been skimmed off some of them, the fatless milk had a bluish glow, and he wrote his name and the time on the panel on the wall and stepped back outside.
Excerpted from "To Die In Spring"
Copyright © 2015 Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Also by Ralf Rothmann,
A Note About the Author and Translator,