I tell you, it took some willpower to read through this. I have never read a more uncompromising depiction of warfare and, at times, I decided I don’t want to see anymore. The scenes are described so visually, so viscerally. As a reader, I was there, from the word go. Thankfully I also had the luxury of putting the book down, escaping from the Eastern Front until such time as I had courage to return.
The second half was much easier – perhaps I had been desensitized? More likely I had come to terms with Ledig’s strategy to show conflict in all its inglorious reality, brutality and stupidity. There are no heroes in these pages – just frightened men, on both sides, trying to escape certain horrific deaths in the trench warfare around Leningrad. There’s no sense that they are fighting fired by belief for the greater political cause. This trophy at the end of this battle is a solitary hilltop.
The officers are morons – impossible invent the senseless nature of their decision making. Ledig probably didn’t. As an ex-Eastern front soldier, he saw it all and channelled his experiences and his anger into these pages.
He channelled that anger well. What at first seems to be a depiction of utter chaos is on reflection a well-structured meticulously plotted piece. In the first chapter a runner makes a terrifying trip from HQ to the frontline. This sets the coordinates of the battlefield. Thereafter, Ledig moves us around from HQ to the German trench to the Russian lines, to the field hospital. Like the soldiers, though, we soon lose our bearings in the heat of battle, or should that be the coldness of the trench as it fills with mud, blood and corpse upon corpse? We see it all, from both sides and it turns out that war is a machine. It is impartial. It will take you down no matter what side you are on. This impartiality is reflected in Ledig’s decision not to name the German troops. They are known only by their designated functions. The Runner, the Captain, the Major, The Sergeant, the Colonel. They are nothing but cogs in the wheels of this machine.
Interestingly Ledig names the occasional Russian – is this to emphasise the humanity of the enemy and the wrongness of the German action?
There’s no comfort in these pages. This battle takes place in the summer of 1942.
Three days later, a cold wind from the sea sucked all the warmth out of the forests. The swamps started to steam. Mists hung eerily over the low ground. The mosquitoes were no longer a problem. Autumn was in the air.
You can feel the chill of the horrors to come right there.
This wasn’t a pleasant read but it was certainly a powerful one. Not a novel I would have picked up either, had Caroline not chosen it for her German Literature Month War and Literature readalong. I’m glad I read it even though it’s not uplifting in any sense. Why, given all the lessons of the past, do we persist in torturing ourselves with the insanity of war?
Other readalong reviews at Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat and Caravana de Recuerdos
Thanks for this great review. And sorry to put you through this. It affected me far less than some of our other choices but I might have blocked some of the pictures as it there were so many. The utter stupidity of the high command was shown so well. And how people are allequal when it comes to suffering.
I will read Payback as well. But – don’t worry – it will not be a future GLM choice. (I’ll publish next year’s list shortly and already chose a German title for next November). 🙂
I’ve been enjoying the discussion of this book very much, Lizzy, so I’m glad you and Caroline decided to include it for German Lit Month. I agree that the overload of strong imagery does tend to desensitize you by the end; I imagine this was one of Ledig’s intentions, but I also wonder whether the book might have been even stronger if he had allowed just a little more breathing room for his readers on occasion than he did. Who can say, though?
War is never a solution to anything; solve one problem, create 3 more.
I enjoyed “Léon and Louise” by Alex Capus, a book I won in your German lit drawing. Thank you. Capus is Swiss, writes in German, the novel is set in France and the translator, John Brownjohn is British. That is a lot of European geography.
The novel begins with Léon’s funeral in Notre Dame, a touch of Léon’s sense of humor. Even with children and grands in attendance, the place echos ’empty.’ A woman click-clicks in high heels up the center aisle to the casket, rings a bicycle bell (imagine that in an almost empty Notre Dame) then places the bell inside the casket, kisses the corpse, turns and click-clicks to the exit. “Who is she?” “Is that her?”
Next chapter begins the energetic, sad, joyous, dramatic, traumatic and humorous story of Léon and Louise who meet in 1918 at the end of one of Europe’s darkest moments. These two bring much light into it despite the fact that early on they are caught in an explosion that leaves each thinking the other dead.
Neither dies, Léon marries Yvonne, Louise has a much more peripatetic life. They do meet again and another war threatens to crush Europe.
Do read it. There is war and the usual insanity it brings; nevertheless, it is a pleasant book with pleasant people.
Susanna in the US.