Translated from German by Nika Knight
A fictional panorama of German history from 1911-1975 condensed into 294 pages is necessarily episodic in structure, with not too much space to dwell extensively on the cruelties of dark years. It shouldn’t be overwhelming, I thought. (I was right, though there is still plenty of trauma.) The Last Country is also set in rural North Germany, and so offers a different perspective to the usual city viewpoint. The third factor that made this book such an intriguing prospect is that the chronological sections don’t align with the big historical dates: 1914, 1933, 1939, etc. Rather they correspond to milestones in the life of the main protagonist, Ruven Preuk, 1911-1917, 1918-1923, 1924-1940, 1941-1950 etc. Life will be impacted by historical events, both in the lead upto and the time following them, and Leiber’s time structuring seems designed to show just how that happens.
Ruven Preuk is born into a farming community. It’s the wrong place for him. He is synaesthetic; he sees musical notes dancing all around him, and he has the accompanying talent. Only his wainwright father does not approve. Following a sound thrashing – which overstepped the mark even for those days – his father finally agrees to violin lessons, and Ruven is sent to the village tutor, Ils Dordel. “You should have been my son”, says Ils Dordel. His son, Fritz, is a rough lad, also born into the wrong family, and he overhears his father’s comment. Cue end of his friendship with Ruven and the beginning of a one-sided and implacable emnity.
By the age of 9, Ruven has outgrown his village tutor and is sent to Hamburg for lessons, where he immediately falls in love with his Jewish tutor’s daughter, Rahel. He later forms a deep friendship with Emma, a left-wing activist, an unwelcome incomer to the village already in possession of its own right-wing thugs. He marries Lene, mainly to escape his rapacious sister-in-law, who is disappointed with her husband, John, who returned from WWI not quite the man he used to be. Ruven is not to find lasting happiness in any of these relationships. Fritz Dordel, the Nazi administrator, will see to that in one way or another.
Ruven’s career is similarly blighted. If he stays in the village, he is consigned to a lifetime of playing at barn dances and village weddings. But is his talent enough to win scholarships, become a soloist? At key moments his courage fails him, then politics intervenes. Will he become a party member to advance his career? Later still, there is a second war. His going to the front is a mirror of his elder brother John going to war. We know it’s not going to be the making of the man ….
so can he be held to account for what happens afterwards?
Up to this point, I had a certain sympathy with Ruven. A man born in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong contacts. I didn’t condemn him when he witnessed the brutal beating of a Jew on the street and never raised a finger to help. The shock of such flagrant brutality could paralyse anyone. To me, Ruven’s story is one of betrayal in the century that betrayed everyone. His dreams are reduced to ashes, as symbolised in the literal fate of a prized violin. Yet following WWII it appears that he simply switches off, interested only in the bottle, oblivious to the way his callous second wife treats his daughter. The impact of that on Marie – it is, in effect, another betrayal – is something I found hard to process.
Leiber switches focus in the final section of the novel to Marie. She is made of more resilient material. The future is hers, though it takes a lucky break to make it so. And life has come full circle. The family is back in the country with Ruven. Fritz Dordel is there too. Two old men with time to reconcile their differences, put the wrongs of the past to rest or ….
setup the biggest disappointment in a lifetime of disappointments for Ruven. Heart-wrenching (despite my coolness towards him by this time). The knock-out punch. I didn’t see it coming. History can be so cruel.