Uwe Timm: In My Brother’s Shadow

      Memoirs are remarkably personal yet also universal. Guilt, both personal and universal, about the inhumanity of war is the driving motif in this work by Uwe Timm, one of Germany’s most noted contemporary writers and novelists. Uwe Timm’s personal guilt concerns his brother, sixteen years older, who was a sapper in the Death’s Head division of the SS. As a member of the SS, did he commit any atrocities when at war in Russia?

      Timm also feels a more universal guilt in relation to his brother. He is also baffled as to why so many otherwise well-meaning people can accept, even participate in, outrageous crimes against humanity. While he writes about Nazism, implicit in his concern are American warders in Iraqi gaols, suicide bombers and other inhumane creatures of the 21st century.

      Timm’s only memory of his brother is a game of hide and seek where his brother lifts him into the air and he has the sensation of floating. This sense of being adrift drives the narrative structure of this moving work and allows Timm to move backwards and forwards between present and past. Timm wanted to write about brother, who died in October 1943 from injuries received on 19 September, but couldn’t while any other members of his family were still alive. Once his mother and sister had died he felt free to express his thoughts. Even though it was forbidden, his brother had kept a diary while in action. The small notebook had been returned to Timm’s parents with his brother’s other effects. Timm read his brother’s war diary reluctantly, afraid of what it might say. However, it is what it doesn’t reveal that causes Timm most anguish. He finds no sign, except in a final, guarded sentence, that his brother ever questioned the brutality in which he was engaged. While his brother’s diary is the key to this elegant narrative, Timm writes as well about his father, mother and sister. The long-lasting effects of the war on the family become apparent. Timm and his family were emotionally scarred by the events to which they were party.

      Timm’s father was a successful and admired taxidermist before the war. After his service in the German army he took up work as a furrier but was never particularly adept at the job. While initially successful, in the fifties the business began to decline and the father drank too much and too often. He died in 1958, when Timm was eighteen. His mother bears it all stoically, taking over the business after the father’s death, maintaining it until she stops work, then suffering a stroke and being incapacitated until her death. His older sister lives alone, eventually dying of cancer.

      In this meditative piece I was struck most forcefully by the mention of a date: 25 July 1943.

      Timm, who was three years old at the time, recalls being bundled from his family home into an air raid shelter as phosphorous bombs dropped from the sky onto Hamburg.

      That date also appears in my father’s flight log. He was the pilot of a Lancaster bomber dropping the phosphorous bombs. A few months after these raids, my father was invalided back to New Zealand. He carried the guilt of his role in the firestorm bombing to his death. On one level, he was simply carrying out his orders, but he never accepted that orders which led to the incineration of people just like Timm’s family were worthy of being carried out.

      And this is why in a universal sense the shadow of older brother Karl-Heinz is ever present, a source of guilt and a reminder that all of us are complicit in social evils unless we have the courage to stand up and say “No”. Timm returns again and again to fundamental philosophical questions about right and wrong, action and silence.

      That he reaches no final conclusion is fitting. The book does not set out to be judgemental. Rather, it is a well-crafted, exceptionally readable exposition of enlightenment.

      The Book

      Timm, Uwe: In my Brother's Shadow / translated by Anthea Bell. - London : Bloomsbury, 2005. - 148 pages
      ISBN 0-7475-7391-3
      Original title: Am Beispiel meines Bruders (German)

      Jeremy Fisher is the Executive Director of the Australian Society of Authors