On Walter Kempowski’s “Homeland”

Stephanie Sy-Quia at the LARB:

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.

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