Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Amnesia and Anamnesis in the Works of Walter Kempowski: Language, History and Evasion of Guilt

Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Amnesia and Anamnesis in the Works of Walter Kempowski: Language, History and Evasion of Guilt

Article excerpt

In his novels Tadelloser & Wolff (1971) and Uns geht's ja noch gold (1972), (1) part of his Deutsche Chronik, Walter Kempowski describes the history of a family in Rostock from the eve of World War II to the immediate post-war period. The secondary literature on these texts concentrates almost exclusively on either listing obvious explanations of the well-documented irony that characterizes parts of these novels, (2) or treating the use of language in a shallow and undifferentiated manner, or discussing the limitations of Kempowski's use of fragmented, unconnected chunks of text lacking narratorial comment. In this essay, I shall discuss major areas of these works that previous critics have largely overlooked. That is to say, I shall analyse the tactics employed by the characters to avoid confronting the Nazi present or past; demonstrate how the cliches used by the fictional Kempowski's to avoid active, critical thought are more revealing of the characters' attitudes than critics have thought; discuss how bas ic motifs are deployed to support the text's apparent argument; (3) and consider the problems which the texts raise in confronting the Nazi past in their depiction of historical events. This is closely connected with the debate about the limitations of Kempowski's ironic narrative mode.

Tactics for evading guilt

Kempowski's two texts are typical novels of Vergangenheitsbewaltigung in that they describe the way Germans avoided confrontation with such difficult issues as guilt by means of various tactics of repression and evasion.

The most obvious examples occur at those points where characters simply ignore or pretend to misunderstand the awful reality of the war (for which they themselves are largely responsible), or simply choose to 'forget' their guilty past under Nazism. For example, in a situation that encapsulates the attitudes of most of the adults in the texts, the young narrator, Walter, is travelling on a train in early 1939 and passes an aeroplane factory:

Im Abteil nahmen wir die linke Seite, da korinte man die Flugzeugwerke von Heinkel sehen. Uris gegenuber eine dunne Frau mit Locken. Sie kummerte sich nicht um das, was es da drau[beta]en zu sehen gab. Sie kramte unabllassig in ihrer Wachstuchtasche. Hatte sie was vergessen? (TW, p. 70).

(We sat on the left-hand side of the compartment from which we could see the Heinkel aeroplane factory. Opposite us, a slim woman with curls. She didn't care about what could be seen out there. She rummaged incessantly in her wax-cloth bag. Had she forgotten something?)

The final question of this paragraph is ironic. On the realistic level, the woman is searching in her bag as if she really has forgotten something (i.e. left an object behind), but the hidden implication is that she is also deliberately 'forgetting' that Germany, contrary to the Treaty of Versailles, was gearing up for war with a massive programme of rearmament. Other examples of such attempts by the characters to distract their own attention away from the truth can be found when they repress thoughts of the sinister sides of Nazi Germany, either by silencing people or ignoring them. For instance, during an extremely important passage in which Sorensen, the Kempowskis' Danish employee, confronts the family with what he perceives as typically German, negative traits, we read:

Sein Charkter verbiege sich womoglich, weg von Klarhiet und Wahreheit des danischen Denkens, hin zum Mystisch-Dunkeln, wie die Deutschen eben seien.

`Noch 'ne Tasse?' sagte meine Mutter. 'Blumchen? - Schade, da[beta] Vati nicht mit hier ist' (TW, pp. 260-1).

([Sorensen said that] it was possible that his character was deviating away from the clarity and truth of Danish thought towards the mystical and the shadowy, which is how the Germans were.

`Another cup?' said my mother. 'Coffee? (4) -- Shame Dad isn't here with us. …

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