Marcel Beyer revisits post-war Germany in ‘Kaltenburg’

April 18, 2012, Wednesday/ 17:38:00

Marcel Beyer’s latest novel takes place in postwar Dresden, but the award-winning German author didn’t actually set foot there until the mid-1990s.

When he did, he knew “from the very first day” that he had a book to write.

That book is “Kaltenburg.” Originally published in Germany several years ago, it was released in the United States on Tuesday and is Beyer’s latest book to be translated into English by the writer who the New Yorker magazine designated as one of the current best young European novelists.

Beyer, 47, has earned praise for his deft handling of themes such as secrets, investigations into the past, and how the slippery nature of such things impact his characters’ lives.

Currently a professor of poetry at the European Graduate School in Dresden, Beyer’s lyrical and unique framing of issues -- usually against the backdrop of postwar Germany -- has earned him several German literary awards. His last English translation, “Spies,” received praise from the Washington Post and the New York Times Book Review.

“Kaltenburg” features Hermann Funk, an ornithologist who is prompted to explore his past when he is approached by a young interpreter seeking his expertise on birds. The overarching figure in that past is Ludwig Kaltenburg, an eminent zoologist who takes Hermann under his wing after his parents are killed in the 1945 bombing of Dresden. Through fragmented flashbacks of Hermann’s youth and detailed descriptions of his mentor’s interactions with his animals, Beyer explores the elusive nature of memory, and the importance of observation in human interactions.

Beyer said that the themes he explores in “Kaltenburg” are universal, but that the changes wrought in Eastern Germany by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 provided ample grist to help crystallize his ideas. “It was a time of great turmoil and high hopes,” he said of post-communist Dresden in an interview with Reuters. “You had hope for the future, and the same time, you were confronted with your own past. This atmosphere and this being torn between future and past was something that was very interesting for me.”

A native of Cologne, Beyer lived in Dresden for six years before he began to write. “For the first years, my job was to listen to stories -- to sit silently and wait until friends started to talk and tell me stories from their youth,” he said. During that time, Beyer collected tales of the political intrigue, the friends and family members turned government informants, and the heightened, ever-present sensation of being watched that were hallmarks of life in East Germany.

In the book, Hermann’s memories of his life in East Germany and of Kaltenburg also surface -- when the right time comes, and Hermann is ready to deal with his mentor’s dark side, which Beyer hints includes time as a Nazi party member. “Kaltenburg for him always was a hero,” Beyer explained. “Only now, well after the reunification in his dialogues with a young person coming from Western Germany is he able to remember that Kaltenburg is not only a hero, but had his dark sides.”

Kaltenburg’s “hero” status to his protégé comes not only from his professional expertise, but how he applies the lessons he learns from his birds to human life. “That’s one very interesting thing bringing animals and humans together -- we all study other living beings constantly. We’re always trying to find out if somebody is watching us, and if we’re being watched in a friendly way, in a hostile way, etc. Animals do that with us, and we do that with each other,” Beyer said.

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