You'd think just about every era, every plot and every last scrap of history must have been covered in fiction by now, and it probably has, but I couldn't help thinking how new and original, and laden with material was the setting for Rhidian Brook's novel The Aftermath, published earlier this year by Penguin.
It is 1946, the British occupation of Hamburg in a post-war Germany humiliated by defeat, and the burden of responsibility now resting with the allies to help a nation rebuild. The fall-out from the conflict blankets the people and the city like a shroud, and with frequent references to ash leaving little doubt how devastated this city was by the bombing. The guilt, the accusations and the rebellion seeth away in the British zone where matters seem to be conducted in a typically rather gentlemanly fashion; suppressed and defeated the German nation must find a new voice, but de-Nazification must happen first and collaborators must be weeded out and punished. Meanwhile back in Britain life's not much of a picnic either, we might have won the war but food, housing and employment remain in very short supply, and there can have been little sympathy or willingness to see precious resources channelled into another country.
This immediate post-war period in Germany is thus a physical and emotional environment charged with fictional possibilities, the destruction of war rapid and thorough compared with the years it can take to rebuild, and perhaps the drama a little harder to find compared to the cut and thrust of war, though Rhidian Brook succeeds admirably.
It is into this potent post-war atmosphere in Hamburg that a grieving Rachael arrives with her husband Colonel Lewis Morgan and their remaining son Edmund. Lewis is a fair man, burdened by a conscience and with an ability to see both sides of the situation, and proceeds to insist that the German family who are living in the requisitioned palatial house, on the banks of the River Elbe, continue to live under the same roof. The widowed architect Herr Lubeck and his daughter Freda move into the upper floor of the house, leaving the vast and luxurious remainder for the Morgans. This a very unusual set-up and is taking reconciliation a step too far in the eyes of Lewis's superiors, plus his wife is none too happy either, and Lewis attempting to lead by reconcilatory example instead walks his wife into an immediate confrontation with her grief... how can Rachael possibly live under the same roof as a German...they killed her son after all.
But Michael was Lewis's son too...
This will all be impossible surely.
Unaccustomed to such grandeur, Rachael and Lewis are like fishes out of water...
'...uncultured cuckoos in the fancy nests of other birds...'
As always no more plot details but suffice to say this is a good read, and one that had me thinking along all sorts of tangents. In this portrayal the British regime does seem to have walked a very fine but seemingly fair line between repressive and conciliatory, and Rhidian Brook delineates this well, apparently drawing on an episode from his own family's history. His grandfather lived in these same circumstances in Hamburg in 1946.
In my usual quest for the perfect bookmark I can't tell you how increasingly appropriate this one became as I read on...
The Dolls at Home by Edward Bawden dated 1946-1947 was displayed in every Lyon's teashop in the land and reveals plenty of uncomfortable perching by stiff characters on posh furniture in their borrowed home... there's a larger than life man... there's a smaller man, a piano, a maid and a doll's house, all essential ingredients of Rhidian Brooks' book.
Mention of Hamburg always sends me looking for my copy of On the Other Side: Letters to My Children From Germany 1940- 46 by Mathilde Wolff - Monckeberg (published by Persephone Books) who lived in the city, and this would make an excellent non-fiction companion read to The Aftermath. These are Tilly's unsent wartime letters to her children who lived abroad, and which lay undiscovered until found and translated by her daughter Ruth Evans in 1974. Ruth's Foreword and Afterword add real-life substance to Rhidian Brook's novel, not least the realities of walking through post-war Hamburg and talking to those who had survived. The potential for a lack of understanding on both sides, so evident in The Aftermath, is vast and very real.. The surely-you-can't-have-suffered-more-than-we-did mentality prevails and with doubtless a hefty dose of well-you-started-it-in-the-first-place thrown in, and as Ruth Evans elaborates, 'prejudices and antagonisms were rife.
Ruth Evans' account of her step-father Emil Wolff's post-war lecture (he was Vice Chancellor of the University of Hamburg) and her quotes from it also overlap well with the underlying themes in The Aftermath.
' War with weapons has ended, war which led to unconditional victory by those who fought for freedom and tradition and were united in their aim. But the fight for the continuity and extension of our European heritage has only just begun. It makes no difference who bears the torch or whence it will be carried. It remains our duty to prevent the flickering light from being extinguished during the present darkness and storm, to shelter it gently and to rekindle its brightness...'
In Lewis Rhidian Brook has created the ultimate torch bearer whose ability to respect others and to subsume all thoughts of vengefulness knows no bounds... until ...no better not say. But when you read of Tilli Wolff - Monckeberg's visit to Britain in 1947, and the warm and unprejudiced welcome she received, you really do start to believe that, even in the aftermath of war, people are innately good and kind and generous after all, and not just in fiction.