A review of “An Ordinary Youth” by Walter Kempowski – a recollection of a young man’s experiences during the fall of Berlin.
There is a type of houseplant called the hanging saxifrage that is known in German as Judenbart, or “Jew’s beard”. This should not be confused with the species of tradescantia that is still referred to as “the wandering Jew” in English. A simple Google search will bring up articles with titles like “methods for controlling wandering Jew”, aimed at gardeners. The Judenbart is mentioned twice in Walter Kempowski’s An Ordinary Youth, which was first published in 1971 and is now available in English for the first time. This book, which raises many questions about its classification as a novel, is a collection of fragmented memories from Kempowski’s youth in Germany during the late 1930s until the fall of Berlin.
The gradual rise of Nazism is depicted in a subtle manner, mirroring the experience of the young narrator. Instances of genocide suddenly interrupt his story, such as when he passes by a burnt synagogue on his way to school. His friend tells him about finding a severed finger and a basement filled with the blood of murdered children, but these are rare moments in an otherwise calm and measured narrative style. The book raises the question of how such acts of violence relate to everyday occurrences, like the naming of a Jewish hairstyle that compares them to plants and their so-called animalistic faces hidden behind beards. The narrator, himself being Jewish, ponders if these daily choices and the use of hateful language contribute to the destruction of synagogues. The war games he plays with his friends, using garden peat as a substitute for Polish soil, seem to foreshadow their involvement in the Hitler Youth and later in the army. However, with racist language and aggressive games being prevalent everywhere, it is difficult to comprehend the unique nature of the German situation.
Throughout his writing career, Kempowski consistently posed thought-provoking questions that blurred the lines between fiction and non-fiction. In his novels and extensive collection of wartime documents and recollections, Das Echolot, he skillfully weaves together a multitude of collective memories and complicities. However, the translation of his novel An Ordinary Youth at this particular moment in time, fifty years after its initial publication, also reflects the current literary preferences. It must be acknowledged that this book can be tedious at times, requiring patience from its readers as they are presented with a series of snapshots that may lull them into a mild state of drowsiness, only to be jolted back to reality periodically. This could be due in part to the translation process, as noted by Michael Lipkin in his translator’s note, where the unique opacity of the original text could not be fully captured, resulting in a version that may appear more like a “bourgeois novel”. Regardless, the translated version of this book invites readers to experience boredom and reflect on their own feelings of boredom, questioning how the horrors of war can coexist with the mundane. As a reading experience, it is not as similar to other notable works such as Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, which offers a sickly and surreal perspective on the rise of Nazism through a child’s eyes. Instead, it is more akin to recent literary successes such as Karl Ove Knausgaard and Nobel Prize winner Jon Fosse, whose immersion in intricate details and demanding attention from their readers aims to captivate and provoke.
I started reading Kempowski’s book before the shocking events of Hamas’s brutality emerged in Israel. When I completed it, the savage bombings in Gaza had become a disturbing part of everyday life in England. I also felt obligated to inform my young daughter, who had received a Star of David pendant from a non-Jewish family member, that it was not advisable to wear it in public at this time. This book feels alarmingly relevant as it raises the question of what atrocities we are willing to tolerate as the norm.