Outside the walls of an old estate manor house in East Prussia, refugees are fleeing for their lives. It is January 1945, the weather is harsh but no one pays much attention to it as the Russians are advancing against a defeated Germany. The once polished army of the Third Reich is now directionless.
Meanwhile, untouched by the chaos filling the countryside, the quasi-aristocratic von Globig family moves through each day much as before.
Ironically the family is not quite that rich. Despite the imposing main house, the Georgenhof, which had caused strangers to wonder “why don’t we live in a house like that ourselves, a place that must be full of stories?” most of the land “meadows, fields and pasture” had long been sold off by the young baron who had invested the money in English steel shares. But these days Eberhard von Globig is away, serving as a special officer, “an administrator who had nothing to do with weapons”, and he earns an army salary from behind a desk.
His enigmatic wife, given to dressing all in black, remains at home and says little. Katharina is admired for her beauty but is believed not to be much interested in anything. Lost in her thoughts she favours lightweight books and displays a vague affection for her young son Peter. There is also the grieving for her younger child, a daughter named Elfie, who is buried in the forest.
The household is dominated by Auntie, a feisty spinster who resents her relatives and who may well concede hospitality but expects ration coupons as payment.
Daily life in the manor house represents a stalemate of sorts as Auntie monitors the antics of the two Ukrainian women working in the kitchen who are constantly bickering with each other.
Also present is a Pole, Vladimir, who is resourceful and slightly ambivalent. War has placed a number of nationalities in close, uneasy contact. It is vital that none of the non-Germans are caught smirking at the situation and, until the Russians actually arrive, there are some minor officials, such as the sneaky Drygalski, ruined shopkeeper now head trustee, who persists, in the atmosphere of prevailing betrayal to continue prefacing most encounters with “Heil Hitler”. Drygalski is bothered by the big house and is keen to billet refugees there.
Historian and novelist Walter Kempowski (1929-2007) spent his career in the shadow of fellow chronicler Günter Grass, who was born two years earlier and outlived him, dying last April, aged 87. Kempowski's experience of life in Nazi Germany shapes his writing. The son of a shipping company owner, Kempowski, as a middle-class teenage nerd with a love of jazz and none for sport, was recruited into the Hitler Youth and in February 1945 was conscripted, aged 16, into the youth branch of the Luftwaffe. Yet it was his father, initially rejected for service on the grounds of being a freemason but later accepted into the army, who died at the front on April 26th 1945.
After the war Kempowski lived in Hamburg. On return to his birthplace, Rostock, he was arrested for spying for the Americans and sentenced to 25 years in Bautzen prison. He served eight years. On release he trained as a teacher. His first novel Im Block. Ein Haftbericht was published in 1969. By then he had already amassed material he wanted to record for posterity.
Best known for his Deutsche Chronik, a series of novels beginning with the autobiographical Tadellöser und Wolff (1971) about life in Germany, his grasp of the complexities of history as it affects ordinary people inform his fiction as astutely as it does his other work. His legacy rests for many on an Herculean 10-volume project, Das Echolot (sonar or echo soundings) begun in 1980 which draws on letters, interviews, diaries, newspaper articles, unpublished autobiographies and other documents.
It is a massive chorus of contemporary voices, not all German, responding to enduring the second World War. In Swansong, the final part, completed in 2005, the material relates to four specific days, including Hitler's birthday and his suicide 10 days later and how people reacted.
Alles Umsonst was published in Germany in 2006, the year before Kempowski died. Placing him on a stylistic level with Wolfgang Koeppen, the author of The Hothouse (1953) and Death in Rome (1954), it is brilliant; vivid, unsentimental, fast moving, cinematic and, for all its apparent ease of telling, scrupulously well-structured.
As in Hans Fallada's Dickensian tale, A Small Circus (1931; 2012), Kempowski's tense characters move through his quicksilver narrative in contrasting states of sheer dread and disbelief. We enter their minds and observe their responses and interactions. The juxtaposing of normality and the extreme is pitch-perfect. Kempowski has a laconic flamboyance comparable to that of László Krasnahorkai. At times All For Nothing conveys the surreal off-beat unreality of Sátántangó (1985). The distinguished translator Anthea Bell has conveyed Kempowski's wry tone with its irreverent mantra of "Heil Hitler" and her work here rivals that of her finest achievement to date, her translation of WG Sebald's Austerlitz (2001).
Many of the conversations in All For Nothing are similar to chess games; most of the speakers are careful, although some are not and edge towards a convincing recklessness. The characters are mostly bewildered, except for the more cunning, such as Auntie.
Kempowski pokes fun at his own obsession with recording history through the interests of some of his characters such as a teacher in possession of archaeological artefacts and a bogus baron carrying historical writings. Also on the loose is a painter, who had been wandering through the German provinces for months, “drawing ‘what was left standing’ as he put it”. ’ He comes to the house as do a number of visitors. All are shown hospitality, albeit reluctantly by Auntie and, in return, take what they can. Humankind does not fare too well in times of war as survival obliterates all concepts of honour. Kempowski remains neutral, leaving the reader to assess the characters.
The supremely passive Katharina is requested to do something. She agrees and although afraid “was also a little proud of herself . . . No one had ever trusted her to do anything before . . . did she just want to prove that she thought herself capable of something?” Her family’s fate spins on her action.
All the while remote young Peter, with his airgun and microscope, evolves into a fascinating study of detached curiosity. He observes the suffering in much the same way as Jim does in JG Ballard's Empire of the Sun (1984). In his travels Peter arrives at a village school to find the teacher's body on the floor. The boy finds some food and then inspects the ransacked house, discovering a woman and child, also dead. "The teacher and his wife had believed that mankind was basically good and 'nothing will happen to us'. And now they were lying in their own vomit." He knows the dead had eaten rat poison and wonders if he should tidy up. It is time to leave. "But he sat on at the schoolmaster's desk, staring at the scene."
As a feat of storytelling All For Nothing surpasses even Grass's Crabwalk (2002; 2003) based on the real-life sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945, admittedly a first-person narrative. Kempowski has summoned unforgettable characters who are shocking, even heartbreaking, in their human responses. Far more than a great German novel; Kempowski's late masterwork is a universal tract which suggests that history can only present the facts; it is crafted stories such as this which enable us to grasp a sense of the vicious reality of war.
Eileen Battersby is literary correspondent