Translated from German by John Cullen
Following an excoriating response from the editor who had been advising Siegfried Lenz on the second draft of his second novel, Lenz replied in 1952 “I’ve slept on it, and now I’d like to say to you, calmly, deliberately, and completely dispassionately, that I will never write this novel (i.e the one the critic suggested he write), and that I won’t write it, because I can’t write it.” With that, the manuscript was filed in his personal archive, and stayed there until it was rediscovered following his death in 2014. (See footnote.)
There were a number of objections, not least the fact that a novel about a defector from the German to the Red Army during WWII was unpalatable in the early 1950s as relations between West and East were getting colder by the minute. Particularly when Lenz’s anti-hero was not counterbalanced by what the critic called “a positive antagonist”. This is the novel Lenz refused to write. Instead the world had to wait some 62 years to read the novel – the very good novel – he did write.
The Turncoat opens with Walter Proska cadging a stamp to post a letter. It ends when Proska pops it in the post. (Oh, I do love a framework!). In the meantime we have experienced the war with Proska, a conscript who naïvely smuggles a beautiful young woman onto his train east. She turns out to be a partisan with intent to blow up the train. By chance he finds himself in “The Fortress” a remote unit in the East Prussian forest, seemingly abandoned by higher command, its members in danger of being picked off one by one by partisans. Eventually the moment of moral choice (or is it Hobson’s choice) arrives, after which Proska finds himself fighting for the other side.
It’s during this section in the forest that Lenz’s strengths assert themselves. In addition to recording the terrain, the day to day dangers and the demoralising effect of indifference on the part of high command, he documents the genuine camaraderie that develops between the members of the unit. These men are not just numbers – canon-fodder, if you will – but individuals, each with there own pecadilloes (I’ll leave you to discover those for yourselves) and concerns. As a result I began to care and some deaths (Zacharias’s in particular) affected me quite profoundly.
Proska himself is no bloodthirsty maniac, but he is in a kill or be killed environment. Not that that entirely soothes his conscience. It’s while he’s advancing with the Russian Army (from East to West mirroring his West to East journey at the start) that the events he feels compelled to confess in the aforementioned letter occur. No spoilers here, but I will say that there is some neat foreshadowing during his “Fortress days”.
Following the war Proska finds himself in the Eastern bloc, working for the authorities there. It’s unclear exactly what Proska is doing, and I feel in general that the telling lacks the clarity and detail of previous sections. (Perhaps because Lenz had no first-hand knowledge of Communist suppression?) Nevertheless the message is clearly that Proska may have jumped out of the pan, only to find himself in the fire!
I have another quibble too. I found the Wanda subplot stretched my incredulity a little too far, but I loved the tension at the end, the not knowing how Proska’s confession would be received. (I can actually well imagine – there was more foreshadowing on the train platform with the returning POWs.) In general though this was an absorbing narrative well-told, and made more powerful by the lack of “a positive antagonist”. That would only have diluted its effect. So pleased Lenz ignored the advice of his enraged critic. Such a shame he – and his publisher – decided to mothball the novel back then. Not that it affected the young author’s career. As we know Siegfried Lenz went on to bigger and better things, receiving in 2000 the Goethe Prize on the 250th Anniversary of J W von Goethe’s birth.
I read The Turncoat for Caroline’s GLM X Literature and War Readalong.
(Footnote: Details as provided in Günter Berg’s commentary, appendix in the Other Press edition of the Turncoat. ISBN 9781590510537)