Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada

the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


(Marrow and Bone)

Walter Kempowski

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Marrow and Bone

Title: Homeland
Author: Walter Kempowski
Genre: Novel
Written: 1992 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 190 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Marrow and Bone - US
Homeland - UK
Marrow and Bone - Canada
Mark und Bein - Deutschland
  • German title: Mark und Bein
  • UK title: Homeland
  • US title: Marrow and Bone
  • Translated by Charlotte Collins

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

A- : impressive variation on the usual dealing-with-the-past novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times A 4/1/2019 Eileen Battersby
The Guardian . 20/12/2018 Melissa Harrison
London Rev. of Books . 20/6/2019 Blake Morrison
The Observer . 17/11/2019 Ben East
The Times . 10/11/2018 James Marriott
TLS . 25/1/2019 Lucian Robinson

  From the Reviews:
  • "The emotional punch of Kempowski's satirical narrative lurks throughout. Homeland, first published in Germany under the grittier title Mark und Bein (“Marrow and Bone”) in 1992, now out in English for the first time, remains fresh, wise, very funny and intuitive. History is everywhere, as is mankind's bad behaviour. (...) Poised and well observed, Homeland is remarkable, a very human narrative featuring a likeable Everyman. For all the robust humour, there are moments of dazzling clarity capable of turning the heartiest laugh into a sudden gasp of empathy." - Financial Times, Eileen Battersby

  • "When history does catch up with him it's briefly devastating, but quickly internalised. There can be no healing catharsis, Kempowski suggests, as Jonathan returns to Hamburg, untransformed. (...) Homeland walks a tightrope between black humour and horror" - Melissa Harrison, The Guardian

  • "Though played out as none-too-subtle comedy, the conflict between Jonathan and Frau Winkelvoss -- he is for historical truth, however uncomfortable; she is for living in the now -- goes to the heart of the matter confronting Germans in the second half of the 20th century: how important is it to remember ? Might it be more helpful to forget ?" - Blake Morrison, London Review of Books

  • "(I)t is a funny, thoughtful and empathetic journey into the eastern European psyche, as seen through the eyes of a Hamburg-based freelance journalist on a somewhat bizarre commission" - Ben East, The Observer

  • "Kempowski's stripped-back prose is at its most affecting when he explores Jonathan's memories of 1945. His brilliantly understated use of free indirect style gives Jonathan's thoughts about his past a convincing interiority. (...) The comedy of the Polish journey never fits entirely comfortably with Jonathan's reflections on his parents' fate, but its levity prevents Homeland from becoming over-portentous. At its best Kempowski's novel, limpidly rendered into English by Charlotte Collins, is a subtly devastating portrait of how a life can be defined by memories of past suffering, even when those memories appear to be submerged under a calm surface." - Lucian Robinson, Times Literary SupSupplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       Homeland -- published in the US, in a closer approximation of the original German title, as Marrow and Bone -- centers around forty-three-year-old Jonathan Fabrizius, long a typical German 'eternal student' (though now having given up the pretense of any studies and remaining enrolled at university merely for the health insurance) and nominally a freelance journalist. He can't -- and doesn't have to -- live off his apparently not very impressive commissions, as the uncle who raised him, a successful business man who owns a furniture factory, still supports him with a monthly allowance. Jonathan shares his Hamburg apartment with his girlfriend, the considerably younger Ulla Bakkre de Vaera, though they keep, and sleep in, separate rooms; when Ulla wants some physical intimacy she'll whistle for him -- but afterwards he's expected to return to his own room.
       Ulla is looking for a bit more permanence in her life -- though hardly from Jonathan; they've been together for three years, but it's more a functional than passionate relationship. It's her birthday when the novel begins, and she certainly feels like it's time for her employment-situation to become more substantial and secure; unlike Jonathan, she doesn't want to continue just to putter on as she has been:

Her part-time status had to change; that was what she was working towards. Twenty-nine years old and still not in regular employment !
       Still pursuing her studies in art history, she has a position at the local municipal art museum -- and is currently immersed in the preparations for: "an exhibition of depictions of cruelty in the arts". She manages to be clinical in her approach:
     None of these terrible images left the slightest impression on Ulla. As her studies had taught her, she considered only their formal aspects: the diagonals, for example, connecting extreme martyrdom with salvific objects, or the barely detectable way an artist had used light and shade to create emphasis, conveying a deeper meaning to the observer.
       Homeland is a novel in which the very worst that humanity has done and experienced figures constantly, in a variety of ways, and much revolves around how its characters, indeed humanity in general, deflect and remain dispassionate about this (though not all quite to the extent Ulla offhandedly manages). Even as many of these horrors are fundamental -- part of personal, family, and national experience -- there's a surface-feel of the characters remaining untouched by it -- though in fact, Kempowski suggests, it is their very core and essence. So also this is a novel of characters and narrative that are (intentionally) unnaturally flat; actual displays of emotion -- such as when Jonathan does, at one point, break down crying -- are both rare and almost compartmentalized; generally, life otherwise quickly goes on as usual. Typically, when a rock smashes through the restaurant where Jonathan and a friend are celebrating Ulla's birthday, it makes for only a brief burst of activity; soon enough, everything is settled back into the same old routine, the brief ugliness simply brushed aside.
       Homeland is a novel marked by significant breaks -- but all essentially at a distance, things that happen, or have happened, but aren't really worked through. So, while it's unsurprising that Ulla and Jonathan ultimately go their separate ways -- it's clear this wouldn't work out, long-term -- the abruptness of the rupture is nevertheless somewhat shocking. Less so, that both Ulla and Jonathan essentially carry on their separate ways afterwards and put the past behind them with hardly more than a shrug of their shoulders.
       Jonathan grew up as an orphan: his father died on the eastern front late in World War II, while his mother died giving birth to him as she and her brother were fleeing East Prussia in advance of the Russian forces. Jonathan accepts this all rather matter-of-factly -- though he is aware that:
As far as suffering was concerned, this guaranteed him an unparalleled advantage over his friends.
       An unexpected opportunity to visit the area where he had been born, and his parents perished, comes in the form of an unlikely job offer:
The Santubara Company wanted to set up a test-driving tour for motoring journalists to convince them of the outstanding quality of its latest eight-cylinder model. Any such tour would, of course, have to be carefully prepared in advance. Would Jonathan care to help with this ?
       It's a generous offer -- five thousand marks, plus expenses -- and Jonathan's curiosity about East Prussia -- which he never really seems to have thought much about -- is piqued.
       Though the novel was published in 1992, Kempowski sets it in 1988, before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of eastern Europe. The Poland Jonathan travels to -- because of course he goes -- is still a communist nation, adding -- or keeping, for now -- another layer to the historical complexity and weight of the region. (After the Second World War, the borders of central and eastern European countries were often dramatically redrawn, and the eastern-most part of what had been Germany, East Prussia, was divided between Poland (which also took over Pomerania and Silesia) and the Soviet Union. There was a mass flight of Germans from the area as the war came to a close, with practically none able (or willing) to remain in that territory.)
       Much of Homeland is then a kind of road-trip novel, including variously a trip into the past, as the travelers are confronted by history while also in a country that in many ways still seems stuck in the past: compared to modern West Germany, much of this 1988 Poland is practically exotic in its backwardness. (As a point of comparison: the annual turnover of the Santubara Company: "was considerably larger than the gross national product of the whole of Poland". [Kempowski's point is taken, but this is a stretch: Poland's 1988 GNP was around US$244 billion, while the turnover (revenue) of the largest company in the world that year -- GM -- was just over US$100 billion (which was way ahead of runner-up Exxon Mobil, at US$76 billion).])
       Jonathan is accompanied on his trip by Hansi Strohtmeyer, a well-known (though not as such to Jonathan) test and racing car driver, who handles the driving responsibilities, as well as Santubara Company representative Frau Winkelvoss; there's also another car, complete with crew to handle the upkeep and any repairs, along for the ride. Setting out from Gdansk -- formerly Danzig -- they proceed with their odd undertaking, seeking out a route that will appeal to the journalists they seek to entice, with Jonathan making notes on sights and places of possible historical or other interest. Needless to say, they repeatedly find themselves confronted by the past -- beginning with the changed place-names, the old German names replaced by Polish ones; typically, Jonathan wonders why the Poles didn't go in for wholesale change but rather stuck with recognizable variations -- the current 'Sopot' barely concealing the former 'Zoppot', for example:
If he were a Pole, and if he'd had any say at all in what happened back in the year of patriotic victory, he would have distorted the German place names beyond all recognition.
       (As Kempowski and his German readers are well aware, the change in names of practically all these places was not the imposition of a new, Polish name to replace the German one, but rather a return to the long-time (and often original) Polish names: Sopot was Sopot long before it became Zoppot.)
       As he embarks on the trip, Jonathan considers all this terrible history and the great suffering and loss -- much of which he experienced, even if as an infant with no memory of it. Typically: "You have to let things go, he thought, or life would be unendurable". And Homeland is essentially about these forms of (trying) letting go -- often a willful looking away or amnesia, or making excuses -- even as Kempowski shows the underlying history and horror seeps into and across everything.
       Near the end of their trip, the three debate visiting one more concentration camp site:
     After breakfast they got into an argument over whether they should drive on to Stutthof, a concentration camp that didn't appear in any encyclopedia.
     'Oh, no, that's taking things too far,' said Frau Winkelvoss, who had flown halfways round the world to get herself a child. She'd had a teacher who had talked, incessantly, for years, about all that Jewish stuff, always showing those terrible pictures. That had been enough for her, thank you. And then she proceeded to talk about how the Germans had shot Jews in Poland and had even gone on to gas them in Auschwitz.
       (Stutthof is not as obscure as suggested here, and does figure in encyclopedias; see also e.g..)
       As throughout, Kempowski's tone is almost shocking in its casualness -- to particularly good effect here, where the argument about going or not concludes with Jonathan finding: "There was no getting out of Stutthof". Similarly, already much earlier, there's a scene where he tries to figure out what to bring back Ulla -- something horror-full seeming appropriate, given her dedication to the exhibition on depictions of cruelty that she is working on ... :
He would have to bring something back for his girlfriend, he was aware of that. The four-colour print of The Last Judgement wasn't enough. Perhaps a coffee-table book about Stutthof concentration camp ?
       This sense of humor -- not just dust-dry but also veering almost to the absurdist -- is found throughout the book, and works to very good effect. Along the way, there's also the more conventionally comic, including some of the misadventures with the car and trip; the balance here can feel a bit off at times -- though overall Kempowski hits, and haunts with, the right tone.
       Before he considers setting out to Poland, Jonathan engages in some research -- "looking for an old Baedeker guide to East Prussia" and looking over old maps -- and reflects on his own experiences, including the comfortable and safe upbringing he enjoyed (almost entirely conflict-free, apparently: "He had only ever beaten up his teddy bear"):
The longer he thought about it the clearer his 'homeland' became to him. But did he yearn for it ? No, because he still had it.
       The trip does bring his -- and Germany's -- past up close and personal, as their path takes them to the sites where both his parents died, forcing him to confront these events more closely. Yet returning home he also is able to settle comfortably back in, despite a major change in his personal circumstances; typically, he has no difficulty in just moving on -- and, in his mind, already looks forward to a further step he'll be able to enjoy soon enough (as his wealthy uncle is getting on in years ...).
       Closing with a lovely little image, a slightly puzzling scene complete with a hole in the wall newly filled in, Homeland is a remarkable dealing-with-the-(German-)past novel, all the more effectively disturbing because of the low-key humor, and the casualness with which the horrors are described. It nicely shakes readers to their 'marrow and bone'.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 December 2020

- Return to top of the page -


Homeland: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       German author Walter Kempowski lived 1929 to 2007.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2020 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links