Previously unpublished, this German postwar classic is one of the best books of this major writer, who died in 2014.
The last summer before the end of World War II, Walter Proska is posted to a small unit tasked with ensuring the safety of a railway line deep in the forest on the border with Ukraine and Byelorussia. In this swampy region, a handful of men—stunned by the heat, attacked by mosquitoes, and abandoned by their own troops in the face of the resistance—must also submit to the increasingly absurd and inhuman orders of their superior. Time passes, and the soldiers isolate themselves, haunted by madness and the desire for death. An encounter with a young Polish partisan, Wanda, makes Proska further doubt the validity of his oath of allegiance, and he seeks to answer the questions that obsess him: When conscience and duty clash, which is more important? Is it possible to take any action without becoming guilty in some way? And where is Wanda, this woman from the resistance he can’t forget?
Written in 1951, The Turncoat is Siegfried Lenz’s second novel. Rejected by his publisher, who thought that the story of a German soldier defecting to the Soviet side would be unwelcome in the context of the Cold War, the manuscript was forgotten for nearly seventy years before being rediscovered after the author’s death. A posthumous triumph.
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|Publisher:||Other Press, LLC|
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About the Author
John Cullen (1942–2021) is the translator of many books from Spanish, French, German, and Italian, including Siegfried Lenz’s The Turncoat, Juli Zeh’s Empty Hearts, Patrick Modiano’s Villa Triste, Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, and Philippe Claudel’s Brodeck.
Read an Excerpt
At the Prowursk station, the little locomotive got a drink. An iron trunk was swung out over its red-hot body, a hand wheel was turned, and then a thick stream of water shot into its opened flank. Proska heard the rush of water and stepped over to the broken window of his compartment. All he could see were a tiny white station house with a number on its facade, a deserted platform, and two woodpiles, for the village itself lay a good half hour away from the station, on the other side of a deciduous forest. A soldier was patrolling the area alongside the train. Since the weather was hot, he’d unbuttoned his collar. He carried his assault rifle slung to his back as casually as an African mother carries her nursling. When he reached the end of the little convoy, which consisted of the locomotive, a supply car, and a mail car, he did an about-face without raising his head and slouched back, retracing his steps. This sequence was repeated several times. The landscape gave the impression of a huge, abandoned hearth; no wind, no gentle breeze could be detected, nor any rustling in the thin shrubbery.
“Will we stop here a long time?” asked Proska, when the sentry drew even with him.
“Until we go on!”
“I thought the locomotive just needed water.” “Ah,” said the sentry grumpily. “So that’s what it needs?” All of a sudden, he raised his head and looked down the mud road that led to Prowursk. Standing by the window, Proska looked in the same direction and saw a girl who was waving to the train and rapidly coming closer. She wore a little leaf-green dress and a wide belt around her waist, which was as narrow as the neck of an hourglass. Stepping quickly, she reached the platform and headed directly for the sentry. Her red hair had a dull sheen, her nose was short, her eyes green-blue. Her feet were inside a pair of cloth shoes. “What do you want?” growled the sentry, staring at her naked legs.
“Mister Soldier . . . ,” she said, trembling. She put down the earthenware jug she was carrying and laid a folded raincoat on top of it.
“What do you have in the jug, milk or water?” She shook her head and brushed back her hair.
Proska admired the outline of her breasts.
“I suppose you want a ride?” the sentry asked. “Yes, just a short way. To the Pripet Marshes. I can give you money, or—”
“Get out of here, and be quick about it! We’re not allowed to take anyone with us. Really, you ought to know that. Didn’t you ask me for a ride once before?”
“You’re a Pole, right?” “Yes.”
“Where did you learn German?”
At that moment, the little locomotive whistled twice, once long and once short. The sentry left the girl standing there, gave Proska a sullen look, and walked toward the front of the train. Cursing, he clambered up into the supply car, sat on a crate, and began to smoke. His assault rifle dug into his flesh, but he didn’t unsling the weapon, because he was too lazy. The heat shimmered above the parched earth.
The locomotive started with a jerk, groaning, and the narrow-gauge train slowly went into motion.
The girl gathered up her things and walked alongside the train. She looked imploringly at Proska, moved very close to him, and whispered, “Please take me with you.”
And the assistant couldn’t resist her eyes, her hair, her slender, naked legs, and the provocative outline of her breasts. He pushed the compartment door open, braced one foot against the board, and reached out a hand. She passed him jug and raincoat, jumped up on the footboard by herself, and let him help her into the compartment. He closed the door and turned around. She stood in front of him, looked him over, and smiled.
“I’ll get off right before we reach the marshes,” she said, as though apologizing.
He remained silent and stared at her strong teeth. “Your comrade will be angry,” she whispered.
It wasn’t easy for him to keep his hands in his pockets.
“Will he shoot me?” she asked with a smile.
He smiled too, pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, and said, “Have a cigarette. It’ll calm you down a little.”
“I don’t smoke.”
“Well then, at least we can sit down.”
They sat down. His knees were a few centimeters from hers.
The sun shot a beam of light into the compartment. Proska watched the dust motes dancing up and down. He and the girl fell silent, listening to the little locomotive groan, and on the other side of the broken window, the landscape slipped by: meadows and burnt fields and small birch groves and—very seldom—a little straw-covered shack, above which a column of smoke sometimes stood motionless in the dry air. No one was working in the fields; in the meadows, a few cows stood around, staring obtusely into space; every now and then, following a lazy habit apparently meant to shoo away flies, their tails would slap their bony hindquarters.
“Do you live in Prowursk?” Proska asked. “Yes, I was born here.”
“I wouldn’t have thought such girls grew in this place. Does your father have cows too?”
“My father was a forester. He’s dead.” “Did he die long ago?”
“Two years.” “In the war?”
“I don’t know. Two years ago, a soldier in Prowursk got shot. The local police came to our village at dawn. They searched every house for men and weapons. We live on the edge of the village, so they came to us first. My father didn’t have time to hide himself properly. He crept into the wardrobe, and when the military police came, I led them through the house and showed them everything, and they were almost on the point of leaving. But when we came back to the room where the wardrobe was, my father had to cough, and one of the policemen pulled out his pistol and fired four shots into the wardrobe, two above and two below.”
“This will all be over soon,” said Proska. She laid her hands on her thighs and kicked her feet up and down.
“Are you married?” he asked.
“No. You’re not supposed to get married before you’re twenty-eight . . .”
She gazed at him for a long time. Then she slid to his side, took his head in her hot hands, and breathed on his forehead. Proska put an arm around her shoulder, but she immediately jerked away from him and sat in her former place.
“I wanted to read your forehead.”
“So, you know how to do that?” he said. “What does it say?” He struck his head with the flat of his hand. “What can you read there?”
She drew in air; her breasts rose. She looked at him mysteriously, and he thought he could dive into her green-blue eyes, suddenly, like diving into a pond.
“Everything will turn out fine,” she said, “or then again maybe not.”
He laughed. “Is that what it says?” “Verbatim,” said she.
“Then you’re a real little prophet. And people love to believe prophets like you. What’s your name?”
“And how old are you?” “Twenty-seven. And you?” “Twenty-nine.”
“And your name is . . .?” “Walter,” he said.
“Walter and Wanda. If your comrade doesn’t shoot me dead, we’ll meet again.” She smiled mischievously. “Nonsense,” said Proska. “He won’t do anything to you.”
They stopped talking and looked past each other and tuned their ears to the rhythm of the moving train: hmm-tmm-tmm, hmm-tmm-tmm, hmm-tmm-tmm. And he thought that a good many words have something in common with this rhythm, words of profound melancholy, words of peaceful longing and bygone love. Hmm-tmm-tmm, hmm-tmm-tmm: It sounded like cov-er-let, or yes-ter-day, or mis-e-ry, or take-my-word, or one-last-kiss.
It grew unbearably hot in the compartment. Sweat broke out on Proska’s forehead; his gums craved liquid. She looked at his assault rifle, which was hanging barrel-down on a hook. “Have you ever fired that?” she asked.
He didn’t answer. He stood up, stepped to the door, and thrust his head through the window opening. The airstream lashed his face and blew his blond hair back. The cooling-off did him good. He could feel her watching him, and he thought, If only we’d stopped for a night in Prowursk! She has exceptional breasts. And that red hair and those green-blue eyes sure go well together. In two hours it’ll be dark. I hope . . .
He turned around and asked, “Do you know how long it will take the train to get to the marshes?”
“About four hours. If nothing happens.” “What can happen?”
“Mines,” she said with a smile. “How do you know that?”
“People in the village talk about them sometimes.” “In Prowursk?”
“Yes. How they hear such things, I don’t know, but they do discuss them.”
“The heat probably spreads rumors,” he said. “Or the hypocritical sky or your wimpy trees. How often do people talk about a train wreck?”
“Every day,” she said.
“Does a train get blown up every day?”
“No. But when it happens, it gives people something to talk about for a week. And then it happens again.” He sat next to her and pressed his thigh against hers. “When’s the last time a train got blown up around here?”
“Five days ago.” She turned to him, put her soft arm around his shoulders, puckered her lips, and said, “I’m tired. The heat makes me lazy.”
Proska looked past her ear at the broken window. They were traveling through a mixed forest, which had already reconquered half the railroad embankment and continued to send out advance parties of small birches, spruces, and willow shrubs against it. The little locomotive blew its whistle once, briefly, and seemed itself to have no idea why.
“The heat makes me thirsty,” said Proska. “I’d like something to drink right now. A cold beer, or . . . what have you got in that jug? Milk or water?” She shook her head and removed her arm from his shoulder. “Nothing to drink. My brother’s in that jug.”
He looked at the earthenware vessel and said, “And what can that possibly mean?”
“You don’t believe me?”
Proska pinched her upper arm; she seemed to feel no pain.
“Now the prophet turns into a magician,” he said. “Marigolds grow especially well in the marsh. Why wouldn’t a brother thrive there too? Do you intend to plant him?”
She acted serious and smoothed the skirt of her little leaf-green dress over her knee and avoided looking him in the eye.
“My brother’s ashes are inside this jug. We had him cremated in Lemberg. He was a railroad man, and the train he was on blew up. I’m traveling to Tomashgrod—that’s where my brother’s wife lives. She asked me to bring her his ashes.”
“Was your brother’s train running on this line?” “I don’t know.”
Proska put his arm around her and stared fretfully at the inexpressive earthen jug. Now he felt as though he were under surveillance, and the more he strove to suppress the feeling, the more stubbornly and intensely it fixed itself in his brain. He felt a certain sympathy for Wanda and gently stroked her neck with his big, strong fingers. He moved his head closer and kissed her hair.
“This will all be over soon,” he said sincerely. “I think it will all disappear overnight, just the way it came. You’ll open your window—not tomorrow, but one fine day—and the sun will shine in your eyes and wish you good morning. The blackbird will perch in your garden, and you’ll listen to it and find out that everything has changed. You think it will happen like that, Wanda? You can’t imagine it, can you? In any case, you’re only twenty-seven, you still have a whole year.”
Silence fell between them. Some old spruce trees that lived in somber dignity at the foot of the embankment looked in on them imperturbably for a moment. He drummed his fingers on her collarbone and then suddenly let them slide down and touch her right breast. She immediately withdrew from his embrace, moved away from him, and smiled menacingly. And that smile stood there like a magical barrier, like an insurmountable obstacle between them.
“I’d like to sleep now,” she said.
“You can put your head on my shoulder,” he said. “Too dangerous for me, I think.”
“If you keep your coat off that jug, I won’t do a thing to you.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
The assistant pointed to the container and said, “I have the feeling this thing is watching me. It seems—at least to me—to have eyes. It’s like I’m under constant observation. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“If that’s really how you feel . . . ,” she said, and then she stretched out on the bench seat and laid her head in Proska’s lap. She looked up at him, a friendly look, and began to breathe deeply.
After a while, he asked her, “Are you asleep already?” “Yes,” she said. “I’m dreaming of you and our next meeting.”
“Is your brother there too? I mean, can you see this jug anywhere near us?”
“No, we’re alone. We’re all alone—and it’s wonderful. No one’s watching us. We love each other. But your rifle’s here, looking at us. It’s not saying anything, though. Can your rifle keep quiet?”
“If it has to. Go to sleep, Wanda. Sleep and dream—or wait, I can make it even more comfortable for you.”
As well as he could while remaining seated, he pulled off his uniform jacket, then folded it, raised her head from his lap, scooted to one side, and shoved the folded jacket under her head as a pillow.
“Thanks a lot,” she whispered.
He said nothing and stared at the jug. He thought, If it wouldn’t hurt her, I’d throw this stupid thing right out the window. I never had such a traveling companion before. If they blow up the train, her brother will go swirling around, and if she’s lucky enough to survive, she can wipe him off the vegetation. Maybe a finger off a birch, maybe a toe off a spruce trunk. A shiver ran down his spine. He stood up, took a couple of steps through the compartment, and stopped in front of the jug, which stood in a corner, slightly vibrating with the swaying movements of the train. It was a simple, probably homemade vessel with a solidly attached side handle. The opening was sealed with greaseproof parchment paper; thin but durable cord had been wrapped around it, the ends conscientiously knotted.
He cast a quick glance over at her, and when he determined that she wasn’t opening her eyelids and was really trying to sleep, he resolutely snatched up the raincoat, unfolded it, and threw it over the jug. She appeared not to notice any of that. As he spread out his arms and stepped to the window, it seemed to Proska that he felt at once freer and braver. The sun greeted him through the treetops; on the forest floor, a rabbit ran wildly in circles and then dashed away. The little locomotive rumbled as it hauled its load through the mixed forest. Proska thought about the wooded surroundings of Lyck, the small Masurian city where he was born. It smelled just like this; the Borecka Forest, especially where it bordered Lake Sunowo, had once made the same impression on him.
The assistant spotted a squirrel, looking up at the train with dark, glistening eyes. Her hair is the color of its fur. I’m going to call her “Squirrel.”
He turned away from the window. She was lying peacefully athwart the seat, her legs crossed, one hand in her lap, the other on her mouth. He cautiously moved close to her, took the hem of her dress between two fingers, and pushed the fabric up a little. Then he bent down and kissed her suntanned leg, just above the knee. He looked at her face; her eyes remained closed, her lips twitched. When he straightened up, she said, “Not on the mouth.”
“I thought you were asleep,” he said.
“Whoever kisses me on the mouth is in for some bad luck.”
“Really?” “Watch out!”
“I don’t care, I’ll take my chances if—” “Don’t do it!” she said with a smile.
He lifted her head and kissed her. She returned his kiss and threw her arms around his muscular neck and then affectionately pushed him away.
“It’ll be dark in an hour and a half,” he said. “We have to see each other again.”