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Lost and found on the banks of the Elbe

by
03 October 2014

Jennie Hogan on The Aftermath  by Rhidian Brook

RHIDIAN BROOK

Tale of turmoil: Rhidian Brook

Tale of turmoil: Rhidian Brook

SURELY a novel whose first page begins "September 1946" is unlikely to be pretty or cheerful. We soon learn that The Aftermath is set in Hamburg, Germany; so it seems all the more certain that it is going to include death and turmoil.

The house that the Morgan family moves into is grand and tasteful. It comes with a tree-lined drive and a river running by, a servant and a cook. It is aloof from the horrors of the fetid factories nearby that the Germans are forced into by the British. This requisition was meant as a gift, a haven from the government to Colonel Lewis Morgan for agreeing to be part of the clear-up - an aftermath if ever there was one.

The house could be seen as the symbolic crux of the whole novel. But it can hardly be said to be a haven. The Colonel's wife, Rachael Morgan, is bored and bowed down by grief. She is unused to negotiating staff, for instance. We see that the complexities of the British class system have by no means been eroded by travel or war. Her identity as a wife, mother, and woman is tested. The fantasies of a husband and wife's reuniting do not match reality. Not even the bedroom provides security.

Colonel Morgan does not make things easy. His decision to allow the German family, the Luberts, to remain in the house is a brazen act; perhaps his generosity is naïve. His responsibility as a father could be questioned, not least because Edmund, his only remaining son, is impressionable.

War may have imposed unrealistic ideals on Morgan. We know nothing about his faith, nor how he came to make this unconventional decision, but some may interpret his conviction as a radical example of hope.

The German children provide a grim warning that the prospect of forgiveness and hope may not spring so soon. Moreover, the children are passionate in their hatred, and focused in their campaigns. The devastation of war seems to have created an amoral vacuum. We observe Frieda, the Luberts' teenage daughter, lose her innocence on various levels. The child she bears is created through the lure of power.

Yet Frieda is bearing an altogether new generation: baby-boomers, who, at best, are inheritors of aspiration. This child's grandfather is an architect who, we are told, dreams of a new earth, "the rubble cleared and the foundations for new buildings flowering out of the ground".

The British mission is at once to rebuild and to control. Throughout the novel, we see various military officials wield power over the powerless. The minutiae of suspicion are meted out in questionnaires completed by the defeated population and pored over by pen-pushers. Here, guilt precedes innocence. Further, innocence can be proved only by the attainment of a certificate of clearance: a Persilschein.

The turmoil of war and defeat has confused codes and warped perceptions. For instance, Rachael presumes that a picture of Hitler must once have hung in the drawing room. In fact, the blank space marks the absence of Claudia, Stefan Lubert's wife, who is presumed dead after the firestorm that swept through Hamburg.

Similarly, the emaciated tutor, whom Edmund pities and feeds, is found to have been an active Nazi. Authenticity is not easily discerned here; so it is impossible to know whether he is a victim of bureaucracy, or a symbol of the insidiousness and ubiquity of deception. War has created a distorted and hastily constructed society predicated on fear. There is, undoubtedly, a great deal of scope for discussion about post-war Germany.

Opinions about betrayed trust between Rachael and Lewis may well vary. Grief and loss felt by Rachael and Stefan respectively could have distorted their judgement. Some may suggest that dormant erotic desire has abolished memory, morality, and nationality.

Morgan is bound by military rule. He is consistently obedient to orders imposed by his superiors, even to the potential detriment of his family. Despite the enforced intimacy between him and his German translator, he maintains professional and personal boundaries. Nevertheless, he watches a German youth - who has just murdered Morgan's fellow officer - die in terror in a freezing river as the ice cracks beneath him.

The incident takes place in close proximity to the home, a place he had intended to be a house of forgiveness and redemption. After taunting Morgan, the youth realises he is in trouble, and calls out to be saved. Successful colonel, grieving father, failed idealist: Morgan's identity is questioned as he sits by the river watching a young man die. We see him negotiate the power to bring new life, and the choice to allow a death.

Rhidian Brook reveals in his acknowledgements that, in 1946, his grandfather decided to allow the owners to remain in a requisitioned house in Hamburg. The novel, therefore, is also a historical document, although we learn nothing more about his family's experience.

While the occupation of the home is the novel's starting-point, and the aftermath of post-war Hamburg its theme, we recognise that every character has his or her own personal aftermath that requires a reckoning.

The Revd Jennie Hogan is Chaplain at Goodenough College, and Associate Priest at St Giles's, Cripplegate, in London.

The Aftermath is published by Penguin at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-241-95747-9).

Who is the hero of this book? Is it Lewis, Stefan, or Edmund? 

Why does Frieda attack Cuthbert the teddy bear?

"Can't take them with you." Should the guards have left the wedding rings on the corpses?

What were your feelings towards Ozi when he showed Berti the contents of his suitcase? 

In the first half of the book, to what extent does Rachael function as something like a second Mrs de Winter in the Luberts' house?

"It's easier to believe in a strong man than a weak God." Do you agree? 

Should Lewis have tried to save Albert? 

"The mind remembers what the soul can bear." Is this practical advice, or empty pietism?

To what extent is Stefan's vision of a rebuilt Hamburg a metaphor for the New Jerusalem? 

What does the escaped black panther represent?

 

In our next reading-groups page, on 7 November, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. It is published by Vintage at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-099-54094-6. 

Book notes

MIKHAIL AFANASIEVICH BULGAKOV completed The Master and Margarita in 1938, two years before his death, but it did not appear in its uncensored form until 1973. Set alternately between Moscow in the 1930s and in Jerusalem under the governorship of Pontius Pilate, its theme is the visit of Satan to the violently atheistical Soviet Union. The devil and his minions cause mischief in Moscow, while an embittered writer - the Master - burns his rejected novel about Pilate and Christ, and turns his back on society. Meanwhile, the Master's mistress, Margarita, is offered supernatural powers by Satan. She accepts them, and chaos ensues.

The Master's line "Manuscripts don't burn" has been associated with the triumph of idealism over totalitarianism in oppressive regimes. Full of satirical imagery, The Master and Margarita is regarded as one of the finest works to have emerged from the Soviet Union under Stalin, and Le Monde included it in its 100 Books of the Century in 1999. 

Author notes

Born in 1891 in Kiev, then in the Russian Empire and now in Ukraine, Bulgakov qualified as a doctor in 1916, but abandoned medical practice four years later to devote himself to writing. He was frequently frustrated by the censorious efforts of the Soviet regime, and, although an appeal to Stalin himself resulted in an appointment at the Moscow Arts Theatre, it was not until after glasnost - more than 30 years after his death in 1940 - that much of the work by which Bulgakov is now best known appeared. 

Books for the next two months:

December: Mud, Blood and Poppycock by Gordon Corrigan

January: Against the Odds by Carmel Thomason

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