Marrow and Bone
A moving, darkly funny road trip novel about World War II, returning to one's birthplace, and coming to terms with tragedy.
West Germany, 1988, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall: Jonathan Fabrizius, a middle-aged erstwhile journalist, has a comfortable existence in Hamburg, bankrolled by his furniture-manufacturing uncle. He lives with his girlfriend Ulla in a grand, decrepit prewar house that just by chance escaped annihilation by the Allied bombers. One day Jonathan receives a package in the mail from the Santubara Company, a luxury car company, commissioning him to travel in their newest V8 model through the People’s Republic of Poland and to write about the route for a car rally. Little does the company know that their choice location is Jonathan’s birthplace, for Jonathan is a war orphan from former East Prussia, whose mother breathed her last fleeing the Russians and whose father, a Nazi soldier, was killed on the Baltic coast. At first Jonathan has no interest in the job, or in dredging up ancient family history, but as his relationship with Ulla starts to wane, the idea of a return to his birthplace, and the money to be made from the gig, becomes more appealing. What follows is a darkly comic road trip, a queasy misadventure of West German tourists in Communist Poland, and a reckoning that is by turns subtle, satiric, and genuine. Marrow and Bone is an uncomfortably funny and revelatory odyssey by one of the most talented and nuanced writers of postwar Germany.
Praise for Marrow and Bone
"Equally insightful, deep, and funny, Kempowski’s book portrays one man’s experience of a collective German post-war phenomenon: the desperate attempt of rationalizing what it means to live with the Nazi regime’s devastating legacy. We follow the protagonist on his gripping inner journey as he navigates conflicting feelings of shame and arrogance, empathy and ignorance. It is the portrayal of this sense of utter disorientation as well as Kempowski’s ultimate conclusion—that the only constructive way of addressing one’s country’s guilt is through a deeply emotional, personal confrontation—that makes Marrow and Bone so humane." —Nora Krug, author of Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home
"Kempowski’s Marrow and Bone is a staggering book about our blind spots, the dead who live within us. About the cruelty of the human race, which is more fundamental to our nature than the concept of guilt by which we seek to exorcise it. And about our forsakenness in the world, which is greater than the daily routines in which we try to find salvation." —Jenny Erpenbeck
"[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, The Times Literary Supplement
"[Marrow and Bone] walks a tightrope between black humor and horror . . . the past bleeds, unasked and largely unremarked, into the present; in the end, neither German suffering nor German guilt can be suppressed." —The Guardian
"Fresh, wise, very funny and intuitive . . . Kempowski’s laconic, all-knowing voice is impressively in evidence here in Charlotte Collins’s nuanced, ironic translation." —Financial Times
“Kempowski’s writing is reflective but rarely solemn. The tension and fear that permeated all aspects of life at that time created a somber world but through his lens it is the absurdity that shows through.” —Bradley Babendir, Chicago Review of Books
“[A] grimly entertaining road trip novel . . . The true power of Marrow and Bone, adeptly translated by Charlotte Collins, comes in Kempowski’s sly exposure of Jonathan’s aesthetic voyeurism, his fumbling attempts to mourn, and his blind man’s bluff with the German past.” —Thomas Meaney, Washington Examiner
"A pathos-filled black comedy of errors." —The Daily Telegraph
“Marrow and Bone isn’t so much a specimen of Trümmerliteratur—a sort of German neorealism that sprang up in the immediate postwar years and centered around returning soldiers—as it is a sterling inversion of the genre. . . . At the heart of Marrow and Bone lies a familiar question: How can a nation go about reckoning with its past when the narratives of suffering and guilt have lost their immanence?” —Bailey Trela, On the Seawall