• Marcel Beyer, translated by Alan Bance
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 345 pp.
  • May 14, 2012

Especially for those with knowledge of Nazi scientist Konrad Lorenz and 20th-century German history, this novel is a window into the subtleties and complexities of life in post-World War II Germany.

Reviewed by Katharine Rogers

In Kaltenburg, Hermann Funk, once a student of Ludwig Kaltenburg, an eminent ornithologist and ethologist, recalls the history of East Germany from the 1930s through the Nazi and Communist periods to the present. Now a retired ornithologist, Funk has been stimulated by his interviews with a young translator to think about his long relationship with Kaltenburg and certain ambiguities in the distinguished man’s character. Kaltenburg served as Funk’s mentor and father figure after Funk’s father was killed in the firebombing of Dresden during World War II.

The character of Kaltenburg is clearly modeled on the Nobel prizewinner Konrad Lorenz, famous for his research into the natural behavior patterns of birds. In later books, Lorenz provoked controversy by applying his behavioral observations to humans. He not only joined the Nazi party, but allowed Nazi propaganda to infiltrate his scientific publications.

Like most Germans, Funk has dealt with the pain and guilt generated in the Nazi and Communist police states by ignoring evidence and repressing memories. As he permits his recollections to surface, Funk begins to identify instances in which Kaltenburg’s activities or scholarship may have been questionable. But Funk does not spell out Kaltenburg’s involvement with the Nazis or make clear why his books were controversial. Throughout, Funk is torn between love and veneration on the one hand, suspicion and disappointment on the other.

Events begin to become clear as Funk recalls them. When Hermann was a child living in Posen (now Poznan), his father took in ailing birds and tried unsuccessfully to nurse them to health. Kaltenburg, then a colleague and friend of Funk the elder, strongly disapproved, on the grounds that animals that could not possibly survive in the wild could not be saved by nursing and that having such animals around created an “atmosphere of death” that would be bad for Hermann. The resulting angry conversation, which the boy partially overheard but could not fully understand, led to the breakup of their friendship.

We come to realize that these birds had been taken away from their Jewish owners and abandoned, but we still do not understand why Kaltenburg was so angry about them. Only near the end of the book do we learn that he was a Nazi at this time and was doing things at the military hospital in Posen which he did not wish to talk about. Kaltenburg later tells Funk “how he had always shrunk from certain people, certain places, as though scared of being exposed to a pathogen for which there was no effective remedy.” Evidently the friendship broke up because Kaltenburg needed to dissociate himself from the doomed Jews and disapproved of the Funks’ sympathy for them. Kaltenburg, unlike Funk, made no attempt to recapture unpleasant memories: he deleted “from his CV the period when we were both in Posen.”

Birds are vividly present in the novel. Indeed, Beyer prepared for writing it by doing intensive research on birds and taxidermy, about which there are many details. Charred birds fell from the sky during the firebombing of Dresden. Every corner of Kaltenburg’s villa is alive with nesting birds and other animals. When a young artist friend of Kaltenburg’s visits the Institute dressed in a loden green coat and picks up a broom to sweep the path, Kaltenburg’s pet raven identifies the man as a hunter with a gun and dives viciously at his back, repeating its attack as the man strikes it with the broomstick. Kaltenburg is infuriated, not because the man could have lost an eye, but because he could have broken the bird’s wing. Kaltenburg implacably banishes his friend from the Institute and refuses to hear his name spoken ever again. Kaltenburg is so committed to the world of birds that he lacks feeling for humans and dissociates himself from ideology and involvement in politics.

Kaltenburg requires an extensive knowledge of German history. A discussion of Luckenwalde and of the disappearance of Paul Merker becomes meaningful only if the reader knows that Luckenwalde was the site of a labor camp in World War II and Merker, once a high-ranking Communist, was disgraced and imprisoned for political crimes, particularly for urging that Jewish survivors of the camps be given financial reparations. This underlines Beyer’s point that the rulers of Communist East Germany continued the anti-Semitism of the Nazis. The menace always present in that regime is indicated by frequent mention of Vorkuta, which was a large, notorious forced labor camp in Siberia.

Such references make this book hard going, as does its shuffled chronology, which constantly shifts back and forth among Funk’s childhood, different stages in his years with Kaltenburg, and his present-day interviews with the translator. Its narrative technique is oblique, and many matters are left uncertain. We never learn exactly what Kaltenburg did in Posen that compelled him to erase that time from his biography or what outraged people about his books.

Kaltenburg offers a subtle and complex picture of German history and of the ways Germans dealt with it. Those with detailed knowledge of Konrad Lorenz and 20th-century Germany may well enjoy the book. Other readers, however, might prefer a more direct and vivid account.

Katharine Rogers, who is very interested in animals, enthusiastically read Konrad Lorenz’s books on natural history. She has published Cat and First Friend and has just completed Meet the Invertebrates.

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