“Today it is hard to form an even partly adequate idea of the extent of the devastation suffered by the cities of Germany in the last years of the Second World War, still harder to think about the horrors involved in that devastation.” So argued the late W.G. Sebald in “Air War and Literature,” a controversial essay that went on to fault writers — especially his fellow German writers — for having failed to adequately memorialize Germans’ experience of the Allied air war. Reading Rhidian Brook’s novel “The Aftermath,” one can’t help but wonder if this is the sort of literary memorialization (albeit from a British author) that Sebald had wished for.
Today, it’s hard to know how many readers will recall what happened after Germany’s defeat, when the victors divvied up its territory into occupation zones. “The Aftermath” opens in September 1946, three years after the Anglo-American air raids code-named “Operation Gomorrah” — “the Hiroshima of Germany” — set the city of Hamburg afire, killed more than 40,000 inhabitants and displaced 1 million others. A year after the war’s end, Hamburg’s populace remains hungry and homeless, orphaned children forage for food, and an especially cold winter is about to begin.
The protagonist of Brook’s novel, Col. Lewis Morgan, has been assigned to supervise rebuilding and denazification within the British-controlled district encompassing Hamburg. The horrible circumstances so trouble Morgan that when he is shown the mansion requisitioned for him, he proposes something unorthodox: Rather than send the current residents — German architect Stefan Lubert, his teenage daughter and a few servants — to their fates as displaced persons, he suggests that they share the house with him, his wife and their son. This true-to-life plot point stems from the author's own family history: Brook’s grandfather served as governor of the district that included Hamburg and similarly opted not to banish the family whose spacious home his family was provided.
Alas, not everyone in the novel embraces this arrangement or shares Morgan’s gracious inclusiveness. The colonel’s wife, still mourning the death of their elder son, has no sympathy to spare for the Germans. Herr Lubert’s daughter, Freda, who lost her mother during Operation Gomorrah, is similarly ill-disposed toward the British. Morgan’s colleagues also disagree with his generosity. As one of them foreshadows, “Well, let’s hope your kindness doesn’t come back to bite you, Colonel.”
The situation is ripe for conflict and betrayals, and Brook provides enough of both to keep the plot moving. The predictable romantic tensions and entanglements will doubtless play well on the screen. (Movie rights have been bought by producer Ridley Scott.)
But at times, the novel clumsily incorporates historical background: “Step one . . . is our honouring of the Potsdam Agreement on reparations. Unless this happens . . . the Inter-Allied Reparations Agency will impose sanctions we can’t afford unless we carry out immediate dismantling. The Americans will have to pay to feed millions of people, and this Iron Curtain that Churchill has been banging on about will become a reality.” In other instances, one wonders if fictional license has stretched too far. For example: Was discussion about the Marshall Plan eight or nine months before it was announced at Harvard’s 1947 commencement ceremonies really so advanced and commonplace that Morgan would hear about it in Hamburg?
It may also be helpful to read this novel with dictionaries in easy reach, whether to translate German words that don’t emerge easily from context, the many British locutions (how many Americans understand “cock a snook”?), or other elaborate phrases (e.g., “Rachael semaphored to the offending greenery”) .
More unsettling: The diligent efforts to evoke the postwar destruction in Germany overwhelm consideration of the circumstances that led to the unleashing of the Allied aerial war. Unfortunately, the only officer who consistently alludes to the concentration camps and their victims is perhaps the novel’s least sympathetic character. (As if readers might not find Maj. Burnham’s alcoholism and thievery sufficiently unsavory, he is also described as “exotic, unEnglish-looking, with silky black hair, pretty-eyed but alert.”)
Although sometimes lacking the depth and nuance one might wish for in a work ostensibly preoccupied with moral questions — justice, punishment and collective guilt among them — “The Aftermath” provides some lessons, or refreshers, about the history of World War II and its immediate, pre-Cold War aftermath. In these November days when Germans — and the rest of us — recall the milestones of the Kristallnacht and the fall of the Berlin Wall, “The Aftermath” augments the story of Germany even more.
Dreifus is the author of “Quiet Americans: Stories.”
By Rhidian Brook
Knopf. 267 pp. $25.95