The shadows cast by the Second World War are long, far beyond the end of the war. “Probably people who have been to war once are at war for life, and those who have had to flee once are rootless forever,” says Ralf Rothmann’s new novel. It is a visually stunning and full of life book, as we know it from Rothmann.
“The Night Under the Snow” is the conclusion of his trilogy about war and the post-war period, after “Die in Spring” (2015) and “The God of that Summer” (2018). The reader now encounters some of the characters from the previous novels again.
Elisabeth Isbahner, the main character, is what one would call a bitch: frivolous, vain, fun-loving, impulsively calculating. Before her marriage she slept with various men, although fewer afterwards, but she has no moral scruples. She works in a restaurant at the port of Kiel, quick and prudent, and yet the notoriously cheerful woman seems to carry something dark within her.
She later moves to the country to live with her good-natured, reserved husband Walter, who works as a milker on a farm. The fact that she actually hates country life and has no desire to eke out a living on a milking stool not only burdens her, but also the marriage. Nevertheless, the two stay together and have two children.
Elisabeth is a moody mother who regularly hits her children, often over trifles. Later, she will downplay her beating attacks in front of herself and others, it wasn’t more than a “slap”, according to Elisabeth. What Walter only suspects: the younger daughter, who suffers from a nervous illness, is not his child, the father is the landowner.
It is a clever move on the part of the author that he has the biography of his erratic main character told largely by another woman, namely by the novel’s first-person narrator, Luisa. Her parents run the restaurant where Elisabeth waits tables. The two women become friends, and Luisa, who is about five years her junior, always looks at Elisabeth, her affairs and lies with a mixture of benevolence and dismay.
From this perspective of ironic distance we experience the main character, for whom morality and decency are as alien as the udders of the cows with which she has to struggle for several years. The fact that Luisa, the intellectual, leads a completely different life from Elisabeth – she becomes a librarian and marries her literature professor – leads to an increasing distance between the two women.
There is a second level in this complex novel, it has to do with Elisabeth’s past and the war. We accompany her, who grows up as a child of farm workers in a village near Gdansk, on the run, separated from her family. Not even 17 years old, she was raped several times in Pomerania, first by a Russian officer, who ended up punching her in the face. Later, the injured girl is lovingly cared for by a Russian deserter, Dimitrij, in an underground bunker.
One of the strongest scenes describes how Elisabeth dozed off in the bunker in the winter of 1945, reflecting on the people who had accompanied her up until then: her grandmother, her mother and her brothers. And she imagines those she hasn’t met yet, her husband-to-be, the children. She thinks she can hear the footsteps of all these people, slowly moving away from her, the injured young woman, with no hope of ever finding her. At that moment, Elisabeth feels the desire never to go back upstairs, but “to live forever with Dimitrij that night, in that warm peace under the snow”.
A regressive fantasy similar to wishing to return to the womb. Forgetting, repressing, not wanting to admit: Many who experienced great suffering in the war stick to this strategy. Elisabeth is also a repressor, and later she hardly talks about her rape. “After all, she didn’t want to be seen as hurt or humiliated, I suppose,” comments the narrator. Apparently Elisabeth compensates for the injuries from the past with her lust for life.
The author works with hard cuts when he juxtaposes scenes from Elisabeth’s grueling life. In one moment we follow her dramatic escape story, in the next we experience her as a young woman after the war, her almost defiant struggle for the little happiness that often only lasts the length of a cigarette. A moment ago Elisabeth was still in the bunker, shortly afterwards she was having fun in the dance shed until the early morning. With the quick changes and cliffhangers, the author ensures speed and excitement.
When Elisabeth and Walter eventually turn their backs on northern Germany and move to the Ruhr area, where Walter starts out as a coal miner, Rothmann once again shows himself to be a master of milieu studies – he has often described this underground world. But his descriptions of life in the country, the world of cowsheds and dairies, also seem authentic. The author certainly benefits from the fact that he knows the milieu from his own family: his father Walter Rothmann worked as a milker in the north before he worked as a miner in the Ruhr area.
And while we’re on the autobiographical side: Rothmann’s mother – whose name was Elisabeth and was born in Isbahn – was raped by a Russian towards the end of the war while fleeing West Prussia. After the war, just like Elisabeth in the novel, she was looking for all kinds of entertainment, wanted to dance at every fair – but often she didn’t have enough money for it. And last but not least, in the figure of Elisabeth’s son Wolf, who becomes a writer, traits of the author, who was born in Schleswig in 1953, can be found.
Like the two previous novels, “The Night Under the Snow” is an impressively sensually written book. One could argue that the characters, especially Elisabeth and Walter, are sometimes too typecast, but overall they come across as colorful and powerful. Elisabeth is an artist of life, who above all has mastered the art of using others to her advantage. And she is a war victim who does not shy away from violence and physical violence.
Probably, her son Wolf reflects, the suffering she suffered at the time made her lose the sense of the suffering she inflicts on others. It’s not an apology, but an explanation.