Marrow and Bone, by Walter Kempowski

Every now and then, I see pictures that blend old and new images of a place to show how much has changed and how much as stayed the same. A lot of them show scenes from World War II alongside rebuilt walls and buildings. The protagonist of Marrow and Bone, by Walter Kempowski and pitch-perfectly translated by Charlotte Collins, Jonathan Fabrizius, has the same kind of vision. His interest in medieval history and his own family history from the end of World War II is always at the front of his brain. Fabrizius isn’t particularly bothered by his past vision, but he does wonder what it means that history is only lightly buried below the mundane, contemporary surface, waiting for someone to scratch.

Jonathan lives a comfortable—if not wealthy—life, expending the bare amount of effort to maintain his relationship with a Swedish part-time curator and his job as a freelance writer of cultural articles. Eventually, he plans to write a book about brick Gothic cathedrals in Europe but there’s all that endless research to get through first. The arrival of a job offer intrigues Jonathan enough to get him up off his couch. A Japanese car company wants Jonathan to travel to northwest Poland with a company representative and a famous race car driver in one of the company’s vehicles, then write up the sights, sounds, and car specs for a feature article. The big draws for Jonathan are a) a chance to see one of his brick Gothic “Goddesses of the North” in person and, more importantly, b) see the place where his mother had died after giving birth to him and the place where his father had been killed on the Vistula Spit.

Traveling with this trio is a strange experience. While Jonathan spends time walking down his own memory lane, the company rep chatters to him about what he should be writing down and unraveling as their careful plans go awry in Poland. The only one who seems to be having a good time is the race car driver. He’s having a good time because he doesn’t expect anything. Also, since he’s the driver, he has a captive audience for his tales of driving glory. At times, Marrow and Bone struck me as a more serious version of Three Men in a Boat because of the string of disasters that occur.

St. Mary’s Church, Gdańsk, Poland, c. 1900, one of the “Goddesses of the North” (Image via Wikicommons)

Marrow and Bone struck me as a story about a whole host of people who aren’t all that tethered to reality. Jonathan’s lost in the past. His girlfriend and friends in Hamburg are always wheeling and dealing to make their fortunes. The company rep is determined to be upbeat no matter what happens. All of these characters, except for Jonathan, are dancing along the surface of some deep, violent history that they refuse to imbue with any meaning.

Marrow and Bone was no doubt written for a German and European audience but, as I read it, I couldn’t help thinking about all the violent history that lives below the surface in my patch of the planet. Where I live was (is) Ute territory. This territory was later taken by Mormon settlers, who have a pretty dark history. Wars have been fought here. Sometimes, like Jonathan, I’ve wondered what this land might have looked like before it was built up by settlers. Also, like Jonathan, I didn’t have to stretch my imagination all that much; there are close-by remnants of wild landscapes that I can easily mentally populate with bison and horses. Thinking about places and history this way is a curious blend of wonderment and sadness. The wonder comes from imagining all of the years that came before, all the people who might have walked here once upon a time. The sadness comes from crimes and deaths that had to have happened here without anyone facing justice. We can pave it over, sure, but the history is still there for those who bother to learn about it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

2 Comments

  1. You don’t say when the book is set. I recognized immediately the Gdansk cathedral and was very interested by the ghost photography you linked to. I went to Gdansk last summer (didn’t make it to the Vistula spit because I understand it’s more impressive seen from above that driving through it) and it’s a weird impression because the city center has been reconstructed from ruins, so it gives a feeling of being old, but also of being slightly fake. Have you read Gunther Grass?

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    1. Whoops! The publisher blurb says that it’s set around 1988. The historical references are mostly for World War II, but the Solidarity movement gets mentioned.

      I haven’t read Grass, yet? Do you have a recommendation?

      Like

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