Berlin's Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery was established in Goethe's birth year (1748) by Friedrich II to bury the distinguished Prussian military officers. Over the centuries it became a monument to Germany's wars and revolutions. Heroes of the 1848 Revolution are buried here, as is the ace pilot of World War I, Manfred von Richthofen. The organizer of the Holocaust, Reinhard Heydrich, was laid to rest here, along with other Nazi bigwigs. But here we also find the remains of prisoners of war, Jews, and hundreds of civilians who perished in the orgy of death of the last days of the Third Reich in Berlin. A cross-section of Täter und Opfer (Criminals and Victims) representing the tragic course of German history. If only the dead could speak.
Well, the Invalidenfriedhof dead do speak in Uwe Timm's novel Halbschatten ("Half-Light"). The narrator takes a guided tour of the cemetery on a rainy Allerseelentag (All-Souls Day) when the dead are especially inclined to speak. His guide/interpreter is a mysterious man known only as "the gray one". The narrator is drawn to one gravestone, the marker of the only woman in the cemetery - Marga von Etzdorf - a German Amelia Ehrhardt. It is her story that is at the heart of Halbschatten.
Marga von Etzdorf was the first German woman to make a solo flight to Japan. It was in Japan where she met the secretive former fighter pilot Christian von Dahlem, and much of the book is in the form of von Etzdorf's monologue recounting the night they spent together in one room, separated by a curtain, telling their stories as the shadows play upon the walls. But the story of unrequited love betweein Marga and Christian is constantly interrupted by other voices of the Invalidenfriedhof dead representing the panoply of German history.
This fragmentary tour of history through voices of the dead is confusing, despite the efforts of the gray one to interpret and explain. Finally, for me at least, these voices intrude and distract from the central story to such an extent that I lost interest in the fate of the lovers. Uwe Timm seems to tie Marga von Etzdorf's mysterious suicide in Syria with Germany's doomed path, but the overall effect is disjointed and novel is ultimately not nearly as successful as Timm's earlier novella Die Entdeckung der Currywurst. Still, Timm is a gifted story-teller, and the passages where Marga von Etzdorf is behind the controls in her airplane Kiek in die Welt are quite beautiful. Unfortunately, the author doesn't allow her to keep flying and weighs down her wings with the heavy burden of her country's history.
Here is a video of Uwe Timm working on Halbschatten and walking in the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery.