Walter Kempowski’s Marrow and Bone is a road trip novel rife with a sense of historic reckoning. The tale is set in 1988, West Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Jonathan Fabrizius, the centre of this story, is a middle-aged journalist, navigating a middling career. He doesn’t make enough to support himself, but he has an uncle, a furniture manufacturer, who supplements his income with a monthly allowance. Jonathan is a war orphan. His father was a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht who died on the Vistula Spit on the Baltic coast. As for his mother, following a horrendous, freezing journey from the Eastern front in a cart, she died in East Prussia after giving birth to Jonathan. This bare bones story provides Jonathan with his sense of identity, and while the history is murky and lacks details, it has provided a sort of heroic, romantic structure of his past.
As far as suffering was concerned, this guaranteed him an unparalleled advantage over his friends.
Jonathan lives in a fabulous but decaying building which somehow managed to survive the bombing of WWII. His peculiar girlfriend, Ulla, who works part time at the municipal art gallery, also lives there. It would be a stretch to say that they live together, for while their rooms connect, they both block their room’s access with furniture. That’s a statement, so it’s probably more accurate to say they share things together: such as sex and outings. Ulla is fascinated by “depictions of cruelty in the visual arts,” so her “shelves were full of books showing all sorts of Inquisition torture” But she’s also interested in modern atrocities but “none of these terrible images left the slightest impression”on her.
With Jonathan’s relationship with Ulla moving towards a termination (that he’s unaware of) he receives an invitation from the Santubara car maker. The company offers Jonathan a job, a trip to East Prussia. It’s a “test-driving tour for motoring journalists to convince them of the outstanding quality of its latest” car. Jonathan agrees and soon finds himself on a road trip accompanying diminutive harem-pant wearing Frau Anita Winkelvoss, and race car driver Hansi Strohtmeyer.
There’s humour in the Germans’ attitude towards Poland and the Polish. This ranges from amusing (Jonathan, Anita, and Hansi tend to make sweeping, unflattering generalizations) to queasy observations.
She praised the fact that they’d been able to take a shower in this hotel without a problem and was astonished that all the Poles were so friendly. To us Germans! After what we did to them. A third of the population exterminated and all the towns and cities destroyed.
Along the way to their destination, the three Germans stop at various historic sites such as Danzig and Marienburg which “the Russians had used for target practice.” At one point several groups of Germans converge: the homeland association, and a delegation from Bremen, the “Socialist Pupils Council of the Rosa Luxemberg Comprehensive there to see “what sort of fascist revanchism was being played out.” Touring the sites has awkward moments with the Polish tour guide leaving out “the invasion of Poland by the German Wehrmacht.” It’s entirely possible that members of the homeland association “had been here before, as children, with their school or with the Hitler Youth.” At one point the German tourists see an exhibition of concentration camp drawings, and the “homeland association slunk past these,” while a teacher “perked up” and yet another tourist, who had been imprisoned in Dachau wants to move on.
The book, with dark humour, examines how these Germans ‘deal’ with their history and “the business with the Jews.” Frau Winkelvoss has definitely moved on from “all that Jewish stuff,” and her ignorance shows. Another major theme is human suffering as spectacle. The characters here are removed from human suffering–it’s a thing of the past, history or even Art.
In Stutthof they had a pleasant surprise, as Hansi Strohtmeyer put it: the concentration camp was shut.
At one point the three travellers visit Hitler’s Bunker, and again, Jonathan, while the most informed of the three, seems to lack understanding of Hitler’s psychology. This is in many ways a book that deals with our ‘roots’ and confronting our personal and national mythologies and history, and for Jonathan, finally, the trip has an unexpected emotional impact.
Translated by Charlotte Collins