<New word (to me) stichomancy: divination by opening a book at random >
As explained in the prologue, Kemposwki’s mission in life was to ensure that the detailed history of this time and place did not get lost. He compiled an immense archive of the diaries, photos, letters, and other memorabilia from East Prussia during WWII and its aftermath and used it to inform the characters and plot in the novel.
The book centers on an aristocratic family that has retreated to their country villa to wait out the war. The time is January, 1945 (remember that the war in Europe ended in May 1945); the place a small town in East Prussia. Eberhard von Globig is an officer in the German military — stationed in Italy he is assigned to manage supply (he is currently “busily confiscating wine and olive oil from the Italians” for use by German troops; in the past he has been responsible for requisitioning topsoil from the Ukraine for use in Bavaria!). His wife, Katharina, is a seemingly vacuous beauty from Berlin, an unwilling and incapable mistress of the estate. 12-year old Peter, Auntie, the family spinster, and workers Vladimir the Pole and the Ukrainian girls, Vera and Sonia, complete the household.
The Russians are heading their way and there is a constant stream of visitors heading from East to West. The visitors bring news and their own stories, which they often feel compelled to keep repeating as if otherwise they would be lost completely. While multiple people urge the family to leave soon, there seems to be a lassitude with regards to any real action — or perhaps they don’t feel they have agency in this regard. Everything is carefully controlled by the authorities — nothing is allowed without a permit.
The story is meticulously, yet concisely, detailed. There are no long streams of names and dates and actions, but instead the intimate particulars of lives disrupted by war and imminent invasion. Each character has their own perspective — some pepper their commentary with “Heil Hitlers” and mean it, others warn the family to hide any evidence of Naziism before the Russians arrive; some are appalled at seeing books by Jewish writers displayed, others whisper about the strange prisoners in striped shirts at the local brickworks. There is constant refrain — “Where did these things come from? Where would they end up? Who knows what may happen?”
Things don’t end well — it is inconceivable that they would — but the slow unwinding of events, the minutiae of survival, the confusion of authority, and the unremitting examination of life and attitudes in a failing Germany is incomparable. I found it darkly interesting that while everyone is afraid of the Russians coming (and with good reason), most of the bad things that happen are a result of the Germans and their system — there appear to be just as many authorities ensuring obedience and punishing “bad behavior” as there are those out fighting the enemy.
It is told in an unemotional style — while a character might be thinking “I am terrified,” the reader is not exposed to any of the literary tricks that would evoke a sympathetic emotion within them. I’m grateful for that — those are not emotions I want to feel, even briefly.