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Roy Jacobsen: Grenser (Borders)

A good part of this book (though by no means all) is set around the Luxembourg/Belgian/German border, hence the title. Many, though not all of the characters are from that region. Much of the action, though not all, takes place during World War II and, specifically, during the time of the Battle of Stalingrad (late 1942) and the Ardennes Offensive (aka the Battle of the Bulge) in December, 1944 when General Hasso von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army broke through the Allied lines (what the US called Skyline Drive and the British the Siegfried Line). Hitler and his generals had realised that attack was the best form of defence. The Allies thought that Germany was crumbling and that the war would soon be over. Hitler and General von Manteuffel caught the Americans on the hop. Colonel Fuller and his troop were in the palace at Clervaux, completely unaware of what was going on. The top brass quickly fled but the troops were ordered to fight to the last man. The Germans soon took the town and when they entered the palace they found one man sitting at the piano playing Scott Joplin tunes.

Much of this book consists of the stories of various key characters from the border area, both their involvement in the war as well as what happened afterwards.

Borders can be rigid and borders can be fluid and the short opening story, set in 1893, shows this, telling the story of a Luxembourg man dealing with the issue of the German-Luxembourg border, which is rigid, and how he makes it more fluid. While we may feel that that is the end of the bridge, we would be wrong. Not only is it, as Jacobsen says, Schrödinger’s bridge, it plays a role both during the war and after the war and can be seen to symbolise the whole sorry mess that borders bring about.

However we meet several of the wartime and post-war characters, get a glimpse of what happened to them during the war and after, but only get their full story later.

The Pianist is an exception as we get his story early on. He is arrested by the Germans, who are so amazed by his performance that they do not kill him. He is taken to various places, beaten and injured and goes to a hospital where he is cared for by Maria, a local nurse, who helps him escape. They hide out in a nearby deserted farm where they fall in love. He then feels that he must try and find his regiment and promises to return. He does not and neither she nor we know why. However both she and we know that she is pregnant. The result is a son, Robert, named afer his father. Maria tries to track down Robert Senior after the war but has no luck. She knows only his first name and his date of birth (from his dog tag). She believes him to be Canadian but she is not certain. Robert is brought up feeling more Canadian than Belgian.

Robert has no father as Maria never marries. However, he has Markus. Markus is a neighbour, married to Nella. He was blinded in the war. Markus has a guilty secret. He is not blind. He was temporarily blinded when fighting for the Germans in Russia but soon recovered. He realised it would be more expedient to remain blind, so he did. He planned to “recover” after the war. He planned to tell Nella the truth, but he never did. Only one person knows the truth – Robert. It is Markus who teaches Robert to read and he teaches him many other things, particularly the history of the region. Markus and Nella had a son Peter but he was killed in the war so Markus is the father Robert never had and Robert becomes a replacement son for Markus.

We will learn a lot more about what happened to Markus both in the detailed story we get of his wartime activities and when he appears in the stories of others and we will also learn more about Peter.

Maria is a teacher, specifically of Latin. She decides she is going to write an improved primer for older pupils. One of the stories concerns her efforts to get it written and then to get it adopted as the school standard, which turns out to be complicated. To write it she takes a sabbatical and to supplement her meagre savings she takes in lodgers. We get the stories of the lodgers as well. One particular one is Leni, a former pupil of Maria and now a teacher herself (at Robert’s school). She helps Maria with the primer.

To Robert’s chagrin – he is very attracted to her though she is ten years older than him – she gets married and has two children. However, apart from fathering the children, Leni’s husband turns out to be a disappointment, However, Robert is still available.

Leni has a brother, Léon. Before he meets him, Robert is warned that he is suffering from war neurosis. He now lives on the family farm with Agnes (they are not married) and her two children from her previous marriage. His story is very detailed and very complicated and involves the same situation that Markus had. Germany had annexed Luxembourg, therefore Luxembourg citizens had to fight for Germany, which, of course they were not too keen on.

Much of the second part of this novel is about the Battle of Stalingrad and, specifically, Markus’ role in it, which is not insignificant. I have other novels on this site about the Battle of Stalingrad (Vasily Grossman‘s За правое дело (Stalingrad) and Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate) and Jonathan Littell‘s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones)) and, not surprisingly, they paint a fairly gruesome picture of a terrible battle which, as we know, did not go well for the Nazis and, it was agreed, was the beginning of the end for the Nazis. This book, however, holds little back. Not only do we see the gruesome effects (on the Germans, though presumably the Russians were suffering as well as it was very cold), we learn very much of the military decisions (in which Markus, though a mere lieutenant was involved), how and why they were taken and, in particular, Hitler’s foolish interference in the day-to-day military decisions. As we know Markus comes out of it (not-)blind but it also has a profound psychological effect on him. And yes we have even have a piano player in the middle of the battle, though this one is German and plays classical music.

One of the key issues in this book is people (primarily Luxembourgers and Belgians, though others as well) fighting for the other side. In Stalingrad, there are many of them.

Markus comments to Jaromil, a Cossack fighting for the Germans against the Russians:
how can you be such a proud people, Jaromil, when you are not even a people but Russians and Poles and Crimean Tartars all mixed up, you have neither your own names, land, language nor religion, you borrow the lot from others, like gypsies, no, at least they have their own language, but what has this got to do with me, I’m a Belgian, not even that, so I know what I am talking about, I’ve got two mother-tongues, Jaromil, but only one mother
.

We have followed a few major stories but there are also a few minor stories such as the would-be William Tell knife thrower, the (almost) renegade priest Father Rampart and even William of Orange.

But it is borders that this is about. It is Father Rampart who sums it up.As regards humans he says non est bonum esse hominem solum [It is not good to a man alone] as borders are between humans as well as countries. But we are also told for borders are not only there to separate friends from enemies, one language from another, me from you and neighbours from those who are not necessarily good neighbours, or to prevent someone moving from one narrative to another without warning, they are also there to be crossed at the appropriate time.

This really is an excellent book as Jacobsen tells us several excellent stories, comments widely on war, borders, language and how we get on (and do not get on) with others, whether they are like us or do not like us and presents us with a host of fascinating characters.

Publishing history

First published 1999 by Cappelen
First published in English in 2015 by Graywolf Press/Maclehose
Translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw