THE PROTAGONIST of Walter Kempowski’s Homeland, Jonathan Fabrizius, is a mildly pitiable layabout in his early 40s, living in Hamburg in the late 1980s (1988 to be precise). He gets by on a combination of the odd newspaper commission, an allowance from his sofa bed–manufacturing uncle, and the benefits of still being nominally enrolled at university (health insurance). His father was a Wehrmacht officer killed in the final days of the World War II on the Vistula Spit (in present-day Poland), and his mother was a member of the League of German Girls (the female wing of the Hitler Youth — he has a photo of her, the only one to survive, where she is looking “jaunty” at the 1936 Olympics with her fellow Deutscher Mädel). She gave birth to him on the back of a horse-drawn cart, fleeing the advancing Red Army in 1945 — and then bled to death.

He occupies a building that miraculously survived the firestorm of Operation Gomorrah, with antique elevators and water lily tiles intact. He cohabits with his girlfriend Ulla, but they have separate rooms. His is rather sad, with cracked linoleum, a ripped sofa “sprouting horsehair” (also where he sleeps, ironic given his uncle’s profession), and that most tragic of bachelor signifiers, a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. Ulla’s is more befitting of her origins in an “orderly family” with “gilt-framed ancestral portraits”: her sofa is a Biedermeier, and she has a French lamp. She works as a curator and is absorbed with an exhibition on depictions of cruelty, considering “only their formal aspects.” When Jonathan gives her an engraving of someone being sawn into pieces for her birthday, she is delighted: “Ulla devoured the quartering with her eyes — ‘Sweet!’ and leant it against the candlestick so she could look at it again and again.” Theirs is a dynamic of contented estrangement. They enjoy going for dinner at their local Turkish restaurant, which serves kebabs “made from the roasted flesh of rams that had been tortured to death,” and afterward, at home, Ulla gives a perfunctory whistle down the hallway for Jonathan to join her and perform his boyfriendly duties.

The novel really gets going when Jonathan receives a job offer from a Japanese car manufacturer to tour the area around Gdánsk, with views to drawing up a route for motoring journalists to test-drive the “latest eight-cylinder model.” The letter detailing the brief is sketchy: “He could go along on the initial preparatory tour, check out the local culture, see whether there was anything worth visiting in the region — stately homes perhaps, or churches or castles the existences and histories of which might add something to the itinerary.” No explanation for the choice of region (which Jonathan, reading between the press officer’s lines, terms “godforsaken”) is given, but because he is curious about the area of his birth, he agrees to go. It should also be noted, as translator Charlotte Collins emphasizes, that a diversity of names exist for the places mentioned in the novel, and the ones used are often those of the pre-1945 German Federation, e.g., Gdánsk is referred to by its Teutonic name, Danzig, while western Poland is called East Prussia. Collins is keen to mention that this does not bear political overtones (but more on that shortly).

Homeland is essentially a road trip novel, but its road trip doesn’t work. Contra to the willful American model of making off into the great vistas of the West, Jonathan and his feckless companions (a racing driver and a sexist caricature of a press officer, Frau Winkelvoss) can’t escape the traumas of East Prussia’s landscape. To paraphrase Joan Didion, history has very much bloodied the land here, leaving it irrevocably besmirched and hard to navigate (as the aptly titled Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder can attest). Instead of experiencing the desired transcendental realization while standing on the Vistula Spit, Jonathan thinks about the “chests of drawers and grandfather clocks” on wagons making their way across the Wisła while under fire from British bombers and Red Army tanks, and that when the ferries crammed with refugees sank, and the dishes in their mahogany dining rooms slid to the floor, “no-one sang hymns.” The final pages of the novel see him scooping some sand from the presumed spot of his father’s death into a medicine bottle, with the vague hope that a forensic lab will be able to analyze it for DNA — a final bathetic pun on the notion of the German fatherland.

A significant moment comes when the trio go to the Malbork Castle, which was the blueprint for Hitler’s network of elite schools, the Order Castles of the Third Reich. A guided tour of the fortress offers insight into the factions of people in pre-reunification Germany: there is a motley crew of pensioners and grandchildren who have come here so as “never to forget that all this had once been German” — the most elderly of whom fled the Eastern Front in 1945 and have come back to the area for a visit (one of them “had been imprisoned at Dachau and still hadn’t gotten over it”). In stark contrast, there is also a group of students from Bremen who are “probably a delegation from the Socialist Pupils Council of the Rosa Luxemburg Comprehensive.” Upon seeing their older and previously fellow countrymen, they become curious about “what sort of fascist revanchism [is] being played out,” but decide to “keep their distance from the wrinklies; they didn’t want to get lumped in with ultra-reactionaries.”

The students have never heard of the Teutonic Order or the Hanseatic League, an ignorance of German historical glories at which Jonathan seems to take umbrage. The tour guide does not mention the invasion of Poland by the German Wehrmacht, and her tone is well received by the German family, “who perhaps had been here before, as children, with their school or with the Hitler Youth.” The German students, meanwhile, make note of the pointed portcullis bars as a “typical example of German cruelty.” An exhibition of drawings by a local artist depicting death camps ambushes the small group — Frau Winkelvoss worries they may impact car sales. Looking around the remnants of Nazi bunkers and a minor concentration camp, she pleads to leave out the “Nazi crap” and the “Jewish stuff” for fear it will “stir up the wrong emotions”; quite what these wrong emotions might be — pride? shame? — we are not told, but it is probably both.

Interestingly, Collins has chosen to title her translation Homeland. The German title, Mark und Bein, literally means “marrow and leg” or “marrow and bone,” and idiomatically suggests “chilled to the bone,” “cut to the quick,” or “to the marrow of one’s bones.” “Homeland,” meanwhile, is a word that recurs, glaringly, throughout Collins’s translation; she uses it as a catchall in lieu of two separate phrases in Kempowski’s original. Early on in the novel, Jonathan expresses qualms about the word: “Homeland? No, impossible, you couldn’t say that any more. It smacked of nationalist propaganda.” In the equivalent passage of the German, Kempowski uses the word “heimat.” Here the translation is a fairly direct equivalence. A rather sentimental term, heimat is rooted in 19th-century German nationalism, but was later co-opted by the Nazis for their “blood-and-soil” propaganda, which included the requisitioning of the heimatroman genre — penny dreadful pastorals replete with alpine villages and busty blonde milkmaids. The novel at hand, with its bluntness and refusal to ennoble the confrontation with the past at its heart, could be seen as an anti-heimatroman. Indeed, in the aftermath of World War II, the genre’s sincerity has few hopes of surviving. As Jonathan muses: “When you’d started a world war, murdered Jews and taken people’s bicycles away (in Holland) the cards were stacked against you.” The term heimat remains loaded to this day, as evidenced by alarm bells set off by last year’s announcement that Germany was establishing a Heimatministerium (equivalent to the United States’s Department for Homeland Security).

Later on in the novel, Jonathan and his companions share the road with the aforementioned extended family of Germans. Jonathan scathingly refers to them as the “Landsmannschaftsgruppe” in Kempowski’s original, which could be translated as “country people [as in countrymen] group.” Collins settles on the term “homeland association.” Though the former is clunkier, Collins’s choice to use “homeland” again means that her translation makes overuse of a word that the protagonist has vehemently disavowed for being too loaded in the early pages of the novel. This further obfuscates the reader’s understanding of Jonathan’s attitude to German history, which wouldn’t matter if it weren’t for the fact that it is gratuitous, an import to the scene. Rather than presenting a complex and even-handed portrait of Germany’s messy relationship to its recent past, this glaucosity is an added element of confusion that does the book few favors.

Kempowski, who was himself a former East Prussian and whose father, a Wehrmacht soldier, also died in the spring of 1945, is widely considered a titan of European literature. It is therefore suspicious that it has taken 20 years for this particular book to be translated, and unsurprising if it disappoints. His most monumental work is the 10-volume Das Echolot, a record of the final years of World War II drawn from diaries of soldiers and civilians alike, across all social backgrounds and perspectives. Compared to such a large, sensitive feat of collective reckoning, Homeland can only look like a cheap trick. It is not a nuanced portrait of German guilt. Instead, with its equivalences between fishing (“small and big fish would be plucked out, bellies slit, guts removed, and the pretty ladies in spotless fish shops would want their filled fresh, and they’d be fried up in butter”) and the Armenian Genocide (“There were no photos on the wall of the Armenians who were driven out into the desert to die of thirst along with their wives and children”), the novel simply feels clumsy rather than bold — provocative in a rather tiresome, teenage-boy sort of way. Homeland’s overriding aftertaste is one of general befuddlement.

¤

Stephanie Sy-Quia is a journalist living in London.