2008 has been the year of East Prussia for me. I started the year reading Walter Kempowski's last novel Alles umsonst, a fictional account of the Flucht u. Vertreibung ("Flight and Expulsion") of Germans living in East Prussia at the end of WWII. Then in November I read the autobiographical book Weeds Like Us by Gunter Nitsch about his experiences as a young boy in East Prussia and how he and his family made their way to West Germany. Gunter is a fan of Arno Surminski and sent me his 1974 autobiographical novel Jokehnen: Oder Wie lange fährt man von Ostpreußen nach Deutschland? .
If you want to read a gripping work of historical fiction with a tightly constructed narrative drama, then read Kempowski's novel. But if you want to get a true feeling for the lost territory of East Prussia, its rural rhythms, its dialect, its village life, then by all means pick up Jokehnen. For Surminksi takes his time in writing a loving description of the land of his boyhood. We meet the people of his village, get to know their eccentricities, the small dramas of rural life. We smell the rich soil, feel the rain and snow, even become acquainted with animals.
Hermann Steputat, the young protagonist of Jokehnen, was born on the day Paul Hindenburg - the hero of East Prussia - dies. The Nazis have seized power, but Berlin is far away from Jokehnen, a rural -almost feudal - village of 200 souls and one telephone. Not even electricity has found its way to this remote outpost of the Thousand Year Reich. Life continues on pretty much as it has for hundreds of years for more than two-thirds of the novel - until history suddenly and violently intrudes and sweeps everything away forever.
That's not to say that there aren't signs all along of what was to come. Patches of brown begin to appear in the lush green of the woods and fields of Jokehnen, and Surminski is clear-eyed in his assessment of the basic blindness of the people he holds in great affection. The villagers are for the most part indifferent to what is happening in Berlin, but as war approaches changes are inevitable. The lone Jew in town who has been part of the community forever suddenly is taken away (along with his Aryan wife). The mayor considers writing a letter in support of his Jewish friend, but then thinks that the "authorities" must know what they're doing. Soldiers make their way through Jokehnen to the Eastern Front and Adolfsche, the Fuehrer, builds his Wolf's Lair not far away in Rastenburg. Russian prisoners appear in Jokehnen to help with the harvest. German military successes impress the local population, so far as news of the war even makes it into the isolated village. As things begin the fall apart, the villagers wait in vain for instructions from the "authorities"; their love of the land turns out to be their undoing in the end.
What prevents Jokehnen from falling into the sentimentality of Heimatliteratur is Surminki's dry humor throughout and his empathy for all, even for the Russians who eventually force the villagers from their beloved Jokehnen. The book has been translated into French and was made into a television movie in 1987. It deserves to be translated into English.