Greetings from the Shadow Realm
With her debut novel, Verena Keßler takes up a sad topic in German history – the mass suicide in a small town in West Pomerania shortly before the end of the Second World War.
By Swantje Schütz
Demmin, a town about 230 kilometres north of Berlin in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, has a history that is uniquely sad in Germany. At the end of April and beginning of May 1945 when the Red Army occupied the small town at the end of the war, an unprecedented mass suicide occurred there. No one knows how many people died, but historians estimate that between 700 and 1000 people – adults and children – lost their lives in the collective suicide. Highly tragic scenes must have played out with mothers carrying their children with them into death by tying them to their bodies and drowning themselves. People had themselves shot or took up arms themselves, swallowed cyanide, hanged themselves or slit the entire family’s wrists. The German Wehrmacht had blown up the bridges over the Peene River, making it impossible for residents and war refugees to flee to the West. This is no easy material for a novel, on the contrary.
Burden of the pastVerena Keßler nevertheless dared to write her debut novel Die Gespenster von Demmin (The Ghosts of Demmin) on the subject. She explains her motives in the NDR’s Kulturjournal, saying, “Most of all, I really wanted to know what effect this has on the present day. What is it like to live in a town like this where such an enormous and awful event took place? Are the people here still interested in it or is it no longer an important issue?”
Consequently, her book is set in modern-day Demmin, in which the past is naturally still an important issue. The 15-year-old first-person narrator Larissa, called Larry, is a rather cool, tough girl who wants to become a war correspondent and who is already taking survival training in case she is later kidnapped and tortured. In her will, she’s stipulated where she would like to be buried and she earns pocket money with a job in the cemetery. Death is her constant companion not just because of this, but also because of her deceased brother, whom she never got to know and whose death tore her parents apart.
Larry’s neighbour across the street plays a second central role in the book. The old lady Lore Dohlberg is haunted by the ghosts of her past: Her mother drowned herself with her little sister in the river Peene when “the Russians came”.
Sad yet life-affirmingDeath is ever-present in Verena Keßler’s debut; the past hangs over everything like a grey veil. But as sad as individual aspects and ultimately the entire book are, it is still a life-affirming story about love, family, solidarity, growing up, strong emotions and great longings – and all without any sentimentality.
Verena Keßler’s use of language ensures this. Every word hits home, every image is fitting. And Larry’s dry-witted tone is simply sublimely funny. Fortunately, the protagonist’s point of view always provides the necessary comic relief, as the stories and personal fates presented by Keßler would be unbearable without any humour at all.
“You can be very happy and very sad at the same time, I know that much now,” says Larry in a fitting conclusion to a novel that makes one sad and happy. Gravity and levity are amazingly perfectly balanced. For me, it’s the best that I read in 2020 and therefore a clear recommendation. It’s a shame that Christmas is already over, but then again books always make great gifts.
Berlin: Hanser Berlin, 2020. 237 p.
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