by Roy Jacobsen


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A sweeping novel of World War II, set in the Ardennes, from the acclaimed author of Child Wonder

The Ardennes, a forested, mountainous borderland that spans France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg, was crucial to Hitler's invasion of France and host to the Battle of the Bulge. In a small valley among these borders lives Robert, born of an affair between an American GI and the Belgian nurse who rescued him. In his father's absence, Robert finds a mentor in Markus Hebel, who has faked blindness ever since serving as a Wehrmacht radio operator in Russia. Markus, in turn, confides his secret to Robert—and then he tells the story of his own son, whose fanatical loyalty to Hitler left him trapped during the siege of Stalingrad. In Borders, Roy Jacobsen brilliantly layers these stories of impossible choices between familial love and national identity, culminating in a nuanced, probing novel of shifting wartime loyalties.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555977559
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 10/18/2016
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 810,688
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Roy Jacobsen is one of the most celebrated and influential contemporary writers in Norway. Child Wonder was awarded the Norwegian Booksellers' Prize and The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles was short-listed for the International Dublin IMPAC Literary Award.

Read an Excerpt


A Novel

By Roy Jacobsen, Don Bartlett, Don Shaw

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 1999 Cappelen Damm AS
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-950-8


The Miller's Bridge

By the River Our – between Luxembourg and Germany – there is, on the German side, a mill barely a kilometre south of the village of Dasburg. It is known as Frankmühle, but the owner, Johann Holper, lives on the Luxembourg side, in the village of Rodershausen.

In late summer, when the water level is low, he can wade across the river – and the border – on his way to work, which takes him five minutes. In the winter months, when the river is high, he has to walk up to Dasburg, cross the bridge there and walk back along the German bank, which takes him about an hour. By horse and cart it takes the same time, because then he can't use the tracks through the forest.

As Johann Holper doesn't live a great deal further from his workplace than many a farmer does, he sits down at his desk on 26 November, 1893 and writes a letter to the Bürgermeister in Daleiden, the closest district to his home on the German side.

"... as I live in Rodershausen but own a mill on the German side, Frankmühle, and have to make a detour of about an hour to get there, I hereby most respectfully beg permission to make a path and construct a small wooden bridge by the mill in the Our Valley to fulfil my needs ..."

Since Johann Holper was born on the border and had learned at his mother's knee that national borders are not something to be taken lightly, he assures the Bürgermeister, twice in fact, that he is requesting only a "very small bridge", in other words not a major road between two nations which may be used for importing or exporting goods, for commercial ends, that is, which necessarily would require a customs office; nor was it to be built for wheeled vehicles, thus allowing it to be used for military purposes, which would necessitate a border-control point: all he wants is a footbridge, the sole function of which is to keep the feet dry of those who are already legally entitled to cross the border in the summer and to save them two, otherwise wasted, working hours in the winter.

The next day he takes the letter with him on his way to Frankmühle and posts it on the German side, so that it will only be en route two to three days up the mountain to Daleiden, rather than sending it from home, in which case it would have to go via Luxembourg, the capital city, constituting a detour of around 140 kilometres, which with checks and transport time would have meant a journey of at least seven days. It is tricks like this that Johann Holper has learned over a long life by the border, so he has German stamps in his desk drawer and in this way also saves on postage. Now, he reflects with a certain pleasure, his letter is taking the same welcome shortcut he himself has hopes of taking in the future, without breaking the law.

The Bürgermeister of Daleiden is also a seasoned border fox, who immediately recognises that this is far too big an issue for his office, so he passes the letter on to Kreis Prüm. But even this regional authority is not high enough, so the miller's application is passed up a level, to the provincial government in Trier. Here the matter is dealt with according to the usual procedures for bilateral state affairs and a copy is sent to the government in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, to the miller's own government, that is, with a request for comments and views.

The Luxembourg government is somewhat bemused that one of their subjects has taken the long way round the river with his application, instead of going straight to them, this approach only delays proceedings, but that is the miller's business. After the turn of the year a delegation, together with the corresponding authorities from Trier, is commissioned to examine the feasibility of coming to an agreement with regard to the "Frankmühle Case".

A number of points have to be clarified first. Who can use the bridge, apart from the miller himself? And as "use" is to some degree reflected in the size and design of the construction, a decision is taken to demand binding guarantees from the miller that the bridge will only be utilised by people travelling on foot.

And now the miller replies through "the official channels", for he has also Luxembourg stamps in his desk, and he repeats that of course it will be a very small bridge, a footbridge, as stated in his application, and since the River Our is so shallow that you can wade across in the summer and winter, such that the proposed construction could not possibly have much effect on any undesired or unmonitored crossings, which are hardly likely to be determined by whether one would get one's wet feet or not, I cannot see that there are any reasonable grounds for not allowing a bridge to be built ...

The officials dealing with the case in Luxembourg detect a tone of irritability in this letter but choose to ignore it. In the meantime their German counterparts suspect that with his private bridge initiative Holper is only trying to avoid paying the toll that a pedestrian has to pay to cross the official bridge at Dasburg. To which the miller responds that he does not pay a toll as he has land on each side and accordingly does not represent a source of income for either part under the present arrangement and so would not constitute any loss under a new arrangement.

The officials accept this too and can eventually get to grips with the main problem: who will have jurisdiction over the new bridge? Germany or Luxembourg?

This is a tougher nut to crack.

Ownership of – and therefore responsibility for – the other bridges over the Our is regulated according to a bilateral agreement, and even though there is nothing in principle to prevent the status of these bridges acting as a precedent for the miller's bridge, this would not solve the question of financial responsibility as neither the German nor the Luxembourg public can commit themselves to this kind of project since the construction will be of no benefit to anyone other than Johann Holper and his small family, who are the very people who made this unorthodox application in the first place.

Whereupon Johann Holper sits down and pens yet another letter, or rather two identically worded letters, one to Trier and one to the capital of the Grand Duchy, in which he unconditionally assumes responsibility for the bridge, both financially and in all other respects.

This proposition is accepted, with reservations, whereby in truth both parties sweep the legal complications under the carpet, concomitant with a private citizen not only owning property on two sides of a national border but also "owning and having responsibility for" the link between them, as it is well known that there are farmers along the Our with land on each side who wade over or cross by horse and cart when they have to mow or milk rather than using the official crossing points, but then the authorities have turned a blind eye to these goings-on from time immemorial.

So on 22 July, 1894 the authorities in Trier, in conjunction with the government of the Grand Duchy, "grant permission for an extremely small bridge – of wood – to be constructed over the River Our at Frankmühle ..."

By this time, however, Johann Holper has lost patience, or else assumed it would never occur to anyone to refuse him this bagatelle of a bridge, or couldn't care less, no-one knows, so he has already set to work erecting it, six pairs of oak piles are rammed into the river bed to hold two support beams to which Holper nails a few rungs, it looks like a horizontal ladder which neither beast nor vehicle can use to cross the river.

The authorities in Trier, though, have – after the decision to grant permission was taken – sent the case to the National Building Council with a stipulation that plans for the construction of the "Frankmühlerbrücke" should be drawn up and approved.

In late autumn that year, on October 17 to be precise, Land Surveyor Krebs, who has just returned from a trip to the Our Valley, personally informs the Regierungspräsident in Trier with consternation in his voice that a "Frankmühlerbrücke" has already been built.

In German official circles it is felt that Holper has possibly been a little too quick off the mark, but of course it can't be proved just like that and permission has after all been granted.

But then Krebs comes to the rescue of his superiors by suggesting that the tricky "question of responsibility" cannot be said to have been resolved after all, as the case is in his hands now, and he – without breaking the laws of the land – cannot give his technical approval to the shoddy work that has been perpetrated at Frankmühle – nor "take responsibility for the safety and durability of the hastily assembled collection of poles and planks", as he put it.

With a certain relief, the German authorities thereby note legitimate grounds for suspecting a breach of building regulations and refer the case to Das Königliche Forstamt – the Royal Forestry Commission – in Kreis Prüm for further action, who in turn assign the case to their man on the spot, Jakob Hemmerling, a forester living in Dasburg, less than half an hour's walk from the disputed construction.

Like Holper, Hemmerling is a border fox, inured to this nonsense from birth, so he takes his time over the investigation and the following March sends a report to his superiors in Prüm, who are then able to read in black and white:

"There is no bridge at Frankmühle."

Das Königliche Forstamt hereby declares the case closed and commits it to the archives.




At the crack of dawn on 16 December, 1944 General Hasso von Manteuffel's Fifth Panzer Army broke through the Allied lines along Skyline Drive, as the Americans called it, or the Siegfried Line, as the British called it, or Westwall, as the Germans called it, Hitler's border with Luxembourg and Belgium, thereby starting the Ardennes Offensive: the last convulsions of the Third Reich, as everyone agreed.

The Germans had managed to assemble close on 300,000 men and more than 900 armoured vehicles behind the front without these movements being spotted by Allied aerial reconnaissance. In the forward deployment area the 2nd Panzer Division crossed the River Our at Dasburg, having first hastily constructed a new bridge as a replacement for the one they had blown up when they retreated three months earlier, and advanced into territory defended by the American 110th Regiment under the command of Colonel Hurley E. Fuller, an outstanding officer who had made a name for himself and been decorated in the First World War, and who at this moment was at his H.Q. in the picturesque medieval town of Clervaux, thirteen kilometres further west in the heart of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

Despite determined resistance from the American border forces, who had been caught off guard, 2nd Panzers rolled through the Ardennes in massive numbers and on the morning of the 17th reached the outskirts of Clervaux. Fuller had billeted his staff at the Clervalis Hotel in the middle of town – which lies in a deep valley – and had absolutely no idea what was going on. Manteuffel had persuaded Hitler to allow him to deploy his infantry before the tanks, to secure bridges, clear the roads, disrupt communications and prevent sabotage by the fleeing Allied forces, for Manteuffel was a German to his boots and knew that when all hope was gone, when all roads were closed, when all resources were exhausted, when all lives had been sacrificed and the skies were laden with soot, there was only one thing to do, to invade the Ardennes, for that is what no-one expects, however often it happens, this fur-coated, sleeping miracle, which through the ages has lain here between the sea and the Reich with its unanswered questions and winding side roads, with its shadows and farmers and forests and dwarfs and its enticing steep hillsides, its mysterious castles and its unendingly depressing rain trickling down over the most sorrowful stories that no-one can be bothered to tell any more.

Colonel Fuller's communications with the rest of the world were effectively severed on this strange Sunday morning in December 1944 when all the whole of Europe was waiting for was peace. The American was left to try to get an overview of the situation by means of intelligence reports which were in effect little more than rumour supplied to him by a civilian population fleeing in panic. Through the hotel window he could see women and children and the elderly pouring through the streets, horses and domestic animals, carts and tractors and rickety vehicles in improvised columns, while the sounds that reached him through the majestic beech treetops, the inexorably swelling song of the forest, was unmistakable: full-scale war once again.

Fuller had dug in on the high ground around the town, but he had no more than twelve Sherman tanks (as opposed to the thirty Tigers which the Fifth Panzers powered in with, as well as twice as many Panthers), and all twelve of them were knocked out in the course of the morning. By half past eleven the Germans were beginning to encircle the town, and minutes later the bombardment started; the medieval chateau was one of the prime targets, the highest point, where Fuller had established his quarters.

But a little later – at 12.34 hours according to records – he miraculously managed to get through to the staff H.Q. in Wiltz, a town fifteen kilometres south-west of Clervaux, under the command of Major General Norman D. Cota. Colonel Fuller gave his superior as precise a description of the situation as possible and asked "in desperation" – his own words – for artillery and tank support.

Cota answered:

"I can send you a battery of S.P. guns, but that's all. I've got two other regiments which need help." (These were busy resisting – also in vain – Manteuffel's Panzer Lehr Division, which had broken through the lines south of Dasburg, between Gemünd and Vianden.)


"I've got twelve Tigers on my back." (The correct figure was in fact thirty.) "They've moved into position on the ridge east of town!" (They were in the process of encircling them.)


"I can't – with the best will in the world – give you more than one battery. And don't forget the orders. Hold out at all costs. Yield no ground! Every man at his post."

A few seconds of silence followed at Fuller's end of the crackly line.


"Are you there, Fuller? Did you get that?"


"Yes, sir. Every man will remain at his post."

At 3 p.m. Clervaux was, to use the German word, eingekesselt – "kettled in". All Fuller's strongpoints were in enemy hands. The German tanks advanced on the town from three sides. The G.I.s put up doughty resistance, but were still losing ground. And shortly before the onset of darkness Fuller gave his surviving company commanders – by telephone (another miracle!) – "strict orders to fight to the last man!"

A second later the line was cut, a deafening explosion followed, floors and walls shook, the roof was holed and on the verge of collapsing, the lights went out, and through the shattered window Fuller caught sight of a German tank, at a distance of fifteen metres, pumping shell after shell into the old hotel. "The Colonel decided to regroup", as the Time Life report the following spring phrased it, which more accurately meant that he jumped out of a window at the rear of the hotel with the raggle-taggle remnants of his staff and then managed to climb up a ladder leaning against a cliff, with a blinded comrade clinging to his belt. Five men reached the high ground between two German panzer positions more or less in one piece, where they hunkered down on the snow-covered forest floor, exhausted; it was the hardest winter in the Ardennes for decades, huge falls of snow, on some nights down to minus twenty, all of which Hitler had been counting on, or at least had hoped for (there was some disagreement among his meteorologists); the offensive had in fact been given the code name Operation Herbstnebel, Operation Autumn Mist, amongst others.

After regaining his composure – and breath – Fuller raised his head and looked down at the town: "Clervaux was like an inferno", he later reported. "The Panthers roared through the ruins and fired at close range into house after house, where a few scattered and desperate G.I.s were still offering resistance. Above the burning buildings there was a dense cloud of smoke, as if from burning oil, occasionally rent by flares and searchlight beams."


Excerpted from Borders by Roy Jacobsen, Don Bartlett, Don Shaw. Copyright © 1999 Cappelen Damm AS. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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