Category: Fiction

Uwe Timm
Am Beispiel meines Bruders
[My brother's example]

Review

A diary, a few letters from the front, a comb, a tube of toothpaste, a packet of tobacco and the Iron Cross – for decades this was all that brought his brother Karl-Heinz, sixteen years his senior, within Uwe Timm’s reach. The successful author, an ardent story-teller, takes these ordinary objects as his point of departure in his study of his lost brother.

Timm’s brother volunteered for the SS Death’s Head Division in December 1942. He had fought in the German offensive at Kursk in Ukraine, where he died in October 1943 at the age of nineteen after both his legs had been amputated. In his latest book, My Brother’s Example, Timm describes Karl-Heinz’s life, cut far too short, and his long afterlife transfigured in the family’s memory. He probes his brother’s motives in volunteering for an elite Nazi unit, and the family values and structures that made that step if not likely at least possible.

Making use of his brother’s example, Timm pursues questions that have been of central importance to many German families since the Second World War, and for that very reason are often hushed up. Alternatively – and Timm presents this as an equally common counter-strategy – the incomprehensible involvement and actions of family members have been described again and again, “thus slowly eroding the original horror, making what happened understandable and ultimately entertaining”.

Timm sees the German past not in the abstract but as part of his own history, that is to say the history of his family, and therefore of his own present too: to approach it “in writing is an attempt to resolve what was merely retained in the memory, to find myself again.” Research into his family and self-confrontation thus merge in Timm’s clinically precise reconstruction of the figure of his brother.

Timm has tried to write about his brother several times before, repeatedly beginning to read his letters and diary entries, and he always had to give up. He felt an “apprehensive reluctance” to go on, such as he had felt in childhood for the fairy-tale of Bluebeard, which he could not read to the end until he was an adult. This approach in writing to the blind spot in the family tradition became possible only after the death of his parents and his sister. Not until then was he “free to write about him, and by free I mean that I could ask any questions and need not consider anyone or anything else.”

As he writes, his brother acquires contours: the big brother who was never there, who was “absent and yet present” and was constantly held up to little Uwe as an example. Setting out from the handful of extant letters and the diary, those few passages in which Karl-Heinz himself speaks in frighteningly curt, unemotional tones, Timm gradually puts together a psychological picture of his elder brother. He must have been a sensitive, dreamy boy who went to war full of idealism. At the same time, however, he wrote the apparently utterly callous diary entry that recurs like a leitmotiv: “Bridgehead over the Donez. 75 m away Ivan smoking cigarettes, fodder for my MG.”

An outstanding feature of Timm’s short prose work is the very fact that he does not resolve such contradictions, difficult as they are to grasp, nor does he try to reconcile them in retrospect. On the contrary: the collage-like text, consisting of remembered images, dreams, childhood anecdotes, incidents reported and experienced, and meta-reflections on the process of memory and of writing, bears witness to the way the narrator has wrestled with his material. Even the texture of his memoir thus reveals the contradictions and discontinuities of this painful written approach to a narrative subject that, while it may be distant in time, is emotionally very close to him. For the unspoken question behind the whole narrative is also, and constantly, what it has to do with the narrator himself.

Consequently his father, who fought in the First World War and characteristically maintained a military cast of mind until his early death, moves closer and closer to the centre of his research. This is not, however, a case of settling accounts with the paternal generation, but of approaching a father figure who remained alien to him in many ways with as open a mind as possible. Outright accusation is replaced here by the attempt to understand.

Not that Timm ignores the question of guilt and responsibility; on the contrary, he turns an unsparing gaze on the mechanisms of suppression at work within his own family. In the same way he dismantles carefully cultivated family legends, yet – and this is the great achievement of this book, a work that is humane through and through – yet without staging a pitiless showdown with his parents’ generation. Timm makes no excuses, but nor does he condemn either his father or his brother. Rather, he tries to show how in both cases “the horror arose from everyday life”.

It is through Timm’s radically personal vision that the reader too is drawn into this individual confrontation with historical responsibility. Timm becomes more than the chronicler of his own family’s tragedy; the many little snapshots which constitute his largely documentary account add up to an emotional history of the entire twentieth century in Germany. My Brother’s Example is a moving document that observes, with the utmost logical consistency, the fact that we cannot escape our own history but must accept it.

Seldom has that most awkward of all German subjects – the problem of the involvement of members of one’s own family in National Socialism – been so personally and yet discreetly, so laconically and at the same time movingly discussed. The narrator’s avoidance of anything sensational or in the nature of a manifesto is as impressive as his courage in identifying and bringing to light what is usually concealed. He neither accuses nor excuses. My Brother’s Example is a model of the way in which the phenomenon commonly described as “coming to terms with the past” can be more than a cliché and become a literary art form.
Anne-Bitt Gerecke

By Anne-Bitt Gerecke, 19.01.2004

Translated by Anthea Bell