On one level Death in Danzig is part of the new wave of books about the German experience in, or at the end of, the Second World War: after Günter Grass on the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff with thousands of German refugees on board, we now learn about her sister ship, the Bernhoff, which went down between Danzig and Hamburg with thousands more. But Danzig became part of Poland; and the next level of the novel is about the Poles who took over German homes and tried to rebuild their own shattered lives. And on a third level Death in Danzig is not about 1945 alone, but about love and grief in general, and the preservation of the dead in art.
The story begins with a private tragedy: a pleasure boat called the Star sinks, a woman drowns. Professor Hanemann, summoned to do the autopsy, lifts the sheet from the corpse and sees the face of Louisa, his lover. He leaves the building and never returns.
The historical tragedy which this prefigures swiftly follows. As the Red Army closes in, the Germans flee. Through the bombing, the fires and the terrified crowds Hanemann’s neighbours the Walmanns – father, mother and two little girls – manage to catch the Bernhoff; so does Louisa’s sister Stella and her companions. Hanemann himself, stumbling on the wreck of the Star, is halted by grief, and misses the tugboat out to the ship. He does not take the next, or any other. He goes home; and when two Polish marauders arrive he invites death by answering them in German. Soon he hears of the fate of the Walmanns and Stella and all the others, and survivor’s guilt is added to his grief for Louisa.
Now we watch the Poles arrive, take over the houses and streets, change their names, and destroy every vestige of the German past, even digging up the German cemetery. But we see all this through the eyes of Piotr C, the boy whose family takes over the Walmanns’ flat. They are kind and decent people – Piotr’s father, indeed, saved Hanemann from the two vengeful Poles on the first day of the new Gdansk. The Cs take in Hanka, who arrives from the east, as their housekeeper, and Adam, a deaf-and-dumb boy found cowering in a cave. Both have survived unspeakable events; and for a long time Hanka, like Hanemann, no longer wants to live. One day she tries to kill herself, but Hanemann finds and saves her. From that day he is painfully restored to feeling; and when the new regime threatens to arrest him, and to remove Adam from Hanka, the Cs help all three to flee. Piotr, who loves them, loses them, and perhaps they fail, since he never hears from them again. But after all the death we’ve seen in Danzig, it is possible to feel that this ending, which at least is open, is the closest we can come to hope.
To tell the story of a novel like this is usually to do it a disservice. But plot is not important here. And though Death in Danzig is often moving, and often exquisite, it is also often obscure. A vague memory of this outline may, I hope, help you through the mystery.
Some of this obscurity is intentional, and it may be that all of it is, since Chwin is clearly a master. His chapter titles are oblique, for instance, and his characters’ names sometimes withheld (‘Mr J’, ‘Andrzej Ch’), as though we are in a fable, or in Kafka’s more than half-inner world. He interposes half a dozen different reporters between us and the narrator, most of whom speak to Piotr only many years later. As a result, almost every part of the story is shot through with doubt and uncertainty. Did Hanemann really walk out and never return, or was he dismissed? Was there another man with Louisa the day she died? Where do Hanka and Adam really come from, and is Adam the boy who was found in a cave?
It is as though this book has two halves, a realistic, historical half about Danzig in 1945, and a mystic, symbolic half about love and art. In this second half there is not just Hanemann, with his passion for Kleist, for sign language, and for ‘thanatopsychology’, ‘the difficult and highly risky art of reading the physiognomy of the dead’. There is also Adam, who is an artist himself – a mime who can conjure up everyone he knows with a gesture, a stance, a turn of his head. Both mime and ‘thanatopsychology’ are images of Chwin’s own arts in this book, history and literature, the ‘difficult and highly risky’ arts of trying to understand and reanimate the dead. And about these arts of his Chwin is once again doubtful. ‘Thanatopsychology’ is an impossible science, Hanemann thinks; and Piotr cannot decide if Adam’s mimes are cruel or forgiving.
Beyond these mysteries, there is the obscurity of Chwin’s style, which consists of intensely observed details of outer and inner life, like a film shot entirely in close-up. The result is a sense of bittiness, and of lack of connection to a real, containing world. But this too may be deliberate. In the pit of his grief Hanemann sees only isolated objects, an ant, a leaf, a grain of rice. ‘His mind guarded itself against the image of the whole,’ Chwin writes, ‘because the whole included those other images as well’ – shipwreck, drowning, death. This is how grief works, and perhaps that is why Death in Danzig works that way as well.