Ralf Rothmann: “The night under the snow”. legacy of violence. – Culture


War provides the people who experienced it with biographies of suffering and lifelong injury. He writes his own story of doom in each individual’s soul, and that story lives on in the children as an indelible legacy.

The theory of the inheritance of suffering is the reason for the writer Ralf Rothmann to write three novels that deal with his family’s war and post-war experiences. In the first, “Die in the Spring”, narrated Rothmann on the brutal entanglements of guilt of the young Walter Urban, who would later be the silent father in almost all of Rothmann’s novels and short stories about the Ruhr area. “The God of That Summer” again is the story of the girl Luisa Norff, who experienced the Third Reich, which was bursting under air raids, on a relatively safe farm near Rendsburg. Her father manages the military casino in Kiel and tries to protect his family from the attacks of the SS, who stagger between death intoxication and ultimate victory folly, with a mixture of shirt-sleeves and drunkard defiance, and to bring them through the last days of the war.

Elisabeth Isbahner also works as a temp in the casino bar. Rothmann’s readers remember the young woman who was portrayed as careless and full of life in “The God of That Summer”. In Ralf Rothmann’s new novel “The Night Under the Snow”, Elisabeth is at the center of the story. She and her family come under fire while fleeing the Red Army. Elisabeth is the only one who survives the attack. The price she pays is a lifetime of unspeakable and unspoken suffering that drives her to attempt suicide and later to turn her hand to brute force against her own children.

His language is still looking for salvation in the descriptions of horrific events

In this novel, Ralf Rothmann also hints at something of the making of his trilogy, of the letters he exchanged with a woman who had known his father as a young man. In the book, this woman is now Luisa Norff, who, as a manic reader, soon discovered her reality in the literature has found. Rothmann transfers the narrative sovereignty over the story to her, in which Luisa, who herself has also experienced rape, hardship and fear of death, is something of a sympathetic observer.

Elisabeth married the milker Walter and moved to his farm in Missunde and is now pregnant for the second time. Instead of traveling to Paris as originally planned, Luisa helps them both. The work in the “paradise” of the farm is hard and brutal, and the animalistic nature of this life in a double sense, which only allows for primitive basic needs, finds expression in the sexuality that always goes hand in hand with forms of violence, the “lasciviousness of men”. Luisa and Walter also share a shy love, which is mostly revealed in looks and vague signals. Once they sleep together, an almost fleeting, dreamlike scene that Rothmann deliberately leaves unnoticed. The novel says about Walter: “They probably drove out his love in the war, but not the breath for the word.”

Ralf Rothmann maintains a belief in the spellbinding power of his language, bordering on the religious, which always wants to touch things and still seeks salvation in the descriptions of horrific events. For example, it is said that the process of milking produces sounds reminiscent of playing a flute.

“The normal, that was the horror”

Love in times of violence is the main theme of this novel, which tells of the painful relationship between three people who are bound together by hardship and a sense of duty. “The normal, that was the horror,” says Luisa, and in this normality should the human find a place, love, trust, having children together? Walter and Luisa once gave birth to a calf together – this is one of the most impressive scenes in the previous novel – a physically demanding job with a lot of blood and pain. That was their birth experience together. It is part of Rothmann’s poetic plan to allow key scenes from previous stories to have an allegorical effect.

But Walter will have two children with Elisabeth, whom he doesn’t love and who doesn’t love him, although Sonja may not be his, but the paternalistic landowner who keeps the couple under his thumb. The girl has a birth defect, a word behind which the narrator suspects a “deep gray canyon of the soul”. Gray is the basic color of this in many ways depressing story. Rothmann’s leading metaphor in this novel is the dark underground, the bunker darkness in which Elisabeth has to endure before she falls into the somewhat clumsy care of the Russian Dimitrij.

The soldier, who obviously had medical experience, stitches up her wounds that his comrades inflicted on her when they were raped, which Rothmann describes in all the cruelty. When this primal experience of mental and physical destruction is told, the narrative perspective changes to authorial. Rothmann thus redeems his poetics of insinuation and conjecture: Only the reader learns about the details of the barbaric torture; only the reader gets a narrative model for the reason why Elisabeth will be the unsteady and later, when the family moves to the southern Ruhr area, to Oberhausen, the desperate infidelity, who wanders through the fuck bars between the colliery tower and the coal dump at the weekend and makes fun of her husband the buddy does. Walter has finally settled into his silence. In the basement he breeds canaries. What a moving picture: the miner protects living beings under the earth that strive for heaven.

It is said that there are few books that are not written for love

Ralf Rothmann does not interpret or explain anything. In “The Night Under the Snow” he has further refined this process by distributing the weight of the story to the characters. Above all, it is Luisa whose affinity for literature and language is a utopian nod: Hardly anything in her life, she says, was “more humane than books”. This may show something of the melancholic coquetry of the young woman, who chose a kind of inner emigration with her reading during the Nazi era. She later studied librarianship and married the literature lecturer Richard Block, who was a prisoner in Neuengamme and secured Luisa a place on the unsullied page of history, so to speak. Luisa remains the Urban’s friend who feels sympathy for her, but she escaped their melancholy and precariat early on.

Of Rothmann’s three historical novels, “The Night Under the Snow” is the most moving. Even if he tends to mannerisms and appositions of this kind: “Combed his wet hair back, he wore a clearly new cotton sweater.” Whether a woman who, like Luisa, was born in the 1920s, would speak of “refugees” and “ensuring media quality” is rather questionable and probably the result of overzealous editing.

Ralph Rothmann: "The night under the snow": Ralf Rothmann: The night under the snow.  Novel.  Suhrkamp, ​​Berlin 2022, 304 pages, 24 euros.

Ralf Rothmann: The night under the snow. Novel. Suhrkamp, ​​Berlin 2022, 304 pages, 24 euros.

However, these small objections do not affect the whole of this extraordinary novel, with which Ralf Rothmann shows again how daring poetic storytelling comes close to historical truth. Narrative restlessness and the motif of unceasing distraction give this book great urgency. But again and again it is about the comforting power of literature, the salvation of souls through storytelling. There are even cheerful images of the struggle to find your way out of the wordless and into speech, for example when the little wolf, the son of Walter and Elisabeth, holds the novel “Madame Bovary” upside down in his hands.

Ralf Rothmann, whose outline as a writer is evident in the character of Wolf Urban, has interviews He kept talking about his parents, about the violence his mother used against him, about his father’s self-destructive silence. An interview quote concerning the rape of his mother can also be found in the new novel, Elisabeth says: “Somebody caught me in Pomerania once.”

Rothmann has let the banality of this sentence dissolve in a powerfully eloquent story of incessant destruction. Letting love, even love battered by lies and sadness, despair of death and lust for life, become an exhausted victor over suffering is the idea of ​​salvation in this powerful novel. There are few books that weren’t written for love, it says toward the end. Of these books, “The Night Under the Snow” is one of the most poignant.



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