Taken as a whole, they embody the legacy of German history, from Frederick the Great’s wars of conquest to Bismarck’s wars of unification and on to the First and Second World Wars; from Prussian militarism to the atrocities of the National Socialists. The story of the early woman aviator Marga von Etzdorf illustrates what the course of history meant for the fate of an individual. She is the gravitational centre of this skilfully assembled mosaic, and the voices heard most frequently are grouped around this woman, the personification of a new kind of femininity in her leather flying suit, a heroine whose long-distance flights made her a star, and who died by her own hand at the age of twenty-five.
The German title of this collage of voices, Halbschatten, translates into English as Penumbra or Half-Light, and that concept basically sums up the aesthetic range of the book: the characters gain cogency in an alternation of light and shade, conveyed by the various different voices of the dead. Light and shade also play a part on the level of motif: they are elements in Japanese spatial design, and the gradations of shade make darkness tangible.
At the heart of the book there is a love story. After landing in Japan, Marga von Etzdorf meets the German consul Christian von Dahlem, also an aviator, and a man who narrowly escaped death during the First World War, saved by a silver cigarette case in his breast pocket. She is immediately attracted by his casual, worldly attitude. Dahlem offers her his room for the night, dividing it into two with a curtain. Each is perceived by the other only as a shadowy outline, and in the course of the night an intimate conversation about the passions develops between them. However, the erotic atmosphere leads nowhere; only the cigarette case is pushed under the curtain from one to the other. Two years later, Marga is looking for someone to finance a flight to Africa. Dahlem gives her a tip, and Marga is now flying, unwittingly, on a National Socialist mission. After a crash landing in Syria, she shoots herself. She seems to have been impelled to take this step partly by her unrequited love, but partly by the discovery that she has been used as a tool. Of course the whole story is not presented in so linear and one-dimensional a manner: the mystery of the young woman’s early death fuels the element of suspense in the novel. Again and again, Uwe Timm makes the veterans from the cemetery speak up, interrupting the nocturnal conversation; all of them want to have their say. Most voluble of all is the actor Miller, who was fascinated by Marga’s daring exploits as an aviator, and would have liked to make a conquest of her himself.
Perhaps inspired by the symbolism of Japanese art, Uwe Timm refrains from presenting any epic development in the lives of his various narrators, and instead takes individual motifs as symbols: aircraft, Dahlem’s silver cigarette case with the shell splinter in it, Japanese vessels assembled from shards. In addition, the writer is playing the same game with his readers as the game that Dahlem plays with Marga, and builds him up, by means of skilful narrative, into a dubious and Mephistophelean figure. At first glance the diplomat seems to be very open with his guest. He introduces Marga to the beauty of Japanese painting and pottery, worms her secrets out of her, and tells her about his affair with the wife of a friend. Like Marga herself, the reader is dazzled by his charming manner, and fails to notice that the diplomat gives nothing at all of himself away. He is the only character not to speak up from beyond the grave; Marga and Miller report his remarks from memory. The secret vanishing point of the action thus remains indistinct. Only towards the end of the novel do we see Christian von Dahlem as he really is.
Penumbra conveys the effect of a mobile, hovering and dancing in the air, open on all sides. Documentary material is complemented by fiction and is seen in a new light. Uwe Timm subtly indicates the prerequisites for National Socialism already present in the history of the German mind. We encounter the monstrous features of the Nazi period not only in Heydrich, the strategist of the Holocaust whose high voice contrasted with his martial bearing, and who devised the “card index of opponents” listing renegade Party comrades, but also in Dahlem. With his apolitical attitude, his detachment and his lack of scruples, he prepares the way for the Nazi executioners. Only Marga von Etzdorf preserves her integrity, despite her crash landings and the slowly fading myth of the woman aviator. Her death is her German destiny.
By Maike Albath
Maike Albath is a literary critic and journalist for the radio stations Deutschlandfunk and DeutschlandRadioKultur. She also writes for the newspapers Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Her books “Der Geist von Turin” (2010) and “Rom, Träume “(2013) were published by Berenberg Verlag.