by Rhidian Brook.
Penguin Books 2014 (2013).
“On the night of 29 July 1943, 370 persons perished in the air-raid shelter on the Hamburgerstrasse in a bombing raid. Remember these dead. Never again fascism. Never again war.”Memorial to the victims of the Hamburg bombings, Hamburger Strasse
Hamburg, 1946. Colonel Lewis Morgan is allocated a villa, requisitioned from a local family as part of the denazification process in the British sector of postwar Germany. By the time Lewis’s wife Rachael and surviving son Edmund arrive to take up residence they discover that the colonel, instead of insisting that the widowed German architect and his daughter remove themselves, has allowed them to share the capacious house and its associated grounds with his own family.
Not for nothing is this novel entitled The Aftermath. The port of Hamburg, its factories, refineries and workers in 1943 were targeted under a total war strategy; it resulted in a devastating firestorm at the end of July which killed tens of thousands, one which would now be classified as a war crime. A year after the war ends how can the city be rebuilt amongst the ruins? How will people survive during the extreme cold of the Hungerwinter of 1946-7? And how will occupiers and occupied get on with each other when sharing accommodation?
Rhidian Brook’s novel builds on his own family’s memories as well as the realities of Hamburg’s occupation, melding fiction with history and individual lives with a bigger picture. Bitterness struggles with forgiveness as a lingering antagonism adapts to fraternisation, and we watch as the lives of army personnel, British civilians, shadowy individuals and feral children interact in Brook’s taut story.
Much of the novel’s action takes place on the Elbchaussee, a long thoroughfare adjacent to parkland on the north bank of Hamburg’s River Elbe, though we also catch brief glimpses of Lübeck and Buxtehude, for example, and of Narberth in Wales. Here on the Elbchaussee resides Stefan Lubert with his quietly angry teenage daughter Frieda, grieving for his wife Claudia and awaiting his Persilschein or denazification certificate.
Into this ménage comes Rachael who, because her elder son died from a German bomb, finds the living arrangement awkward in the extreme. Lewis, in the meantime, is so taken up with his military duties trying to restore normality within his jurisdiction that he remains distanced from his family’s emotional needs and unconscious of the dangerous situation he’s set up with the house share. When Herr Lubert tells Edmund — though his statement applies equally to women — “Men have to have their secrets,” he expresses the leitmotiv that runs through these pages: secrets that may bedevil any smooth transition to reconciliation and can also lead to betrayal and faithlessness.
Against all the angst of these individuals others are starving, suffering from the extreme cold, storing up resentment and protesting, while continuing to seek missing family. Meanwhile the future generation are in part represented by the youngsters (such as Ozi and Ernst) who have gone wild yet try to survive while admiring the efforts of ‘good Tommy’, and by the yet unborn who will rebuild Germany with a new philosophy.
Rhidian Brook has created a believable story covering a six month period, peopled with figures who feel real, each with their individual needs and desires, their idiosyncrasies and motivations. He deftly conjures up the long bitter winter that affected Northern Europe the year after the war ended, and paints images of destruction balanced by visions of reconstruction; and he offers an accurate representation of manners and habits — such as hard smoking and drinking — that’s hard to credit nowadays when they’re less acceptable.
When Edmund and his father discuss the Big Enders and Little Enders — referring of course to the inhabitants of Lilliput and Blefescu in Gulliver’s Travels, who go to war over how best to break open a boiled egg — it’s difficult not to see the reference to Swift’s satire as a commentary not only on the historic conflict in the novel but to all war. It’s a real pity that dictators and warmongers don’t bear in mind the Hamburg memorial which urges them to “Remember these dead. Never again fascism. Never again war.”
Read for Reading Wales Month. Rhidian Brooks, who was born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, is a screenwriter and broadcaster as well as a novelist.