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Missing in Action

LOST A Novel By Hans-Ulrich Treichel Translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway; Pantheon: 138 pp., $19

October 17, 1999|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review

In the 40 years that it has taken the Swedish Academy to recognize the genius of Gunter Grass, his young tin drummer Oskar Matzerath has begotten a new generation of characters on the reunited German landscape. Coming of age after World War II, this new generation, aided by the pens of writers like Bernhard Schlink and Ingo Schulze, has gnashed its teeth and beaten their heads and drumsticks, not against the crimes of their parents but against the guilt and shame that radiates from the soil and paper of Germany.

One of their number is the young narrator of "Lost," poet Hans-Ulrich Treichel's first novel. His parents are good burgerlich types of "Swabian-pietistic, East Prussian" origins. Driven in the last year of the war off their farm in East Prussia, they have resettled in Westphalia, where the father has made good as a wholesale butcher. Yet there is a specter that hangs over the family, the memory of another son, a dead son named Arnold, who starved to death as the parents fled the Russians. For the young narrator, born after the parents had settled safely in the west, Arnold is a source of pride: None of his friends has a dead brother. Yet he can't help but feel somewhat second-rate as a living child. Even in the family album he is relegated to a few smudgy prints in the back, while in a studio enlargement on the first page, the 1-year-old Arnold "squatted on a white blanket and laughed into the camera."

And then one day, his mother calls him in "for something she called a 'discussion.' " Arnold, she tells her son, isn't dead, didn't starve. On that wintry day, when the Russians surprised the line of refugees and came toward the farmer and his young wife with pistols raised, she, believing their death was imminent, thrust the bundled baby into the arms of an old woman. Ten years later, their guilt has risen to the surface and turned their lives into a mad, obsessive search for their lost son. "I was only just beginning to understand," the narrator says, "that Arnold, my un-dead brother, had the leading role in the family and had assigned me a supporting part. I also understood that Arnold was responsible from the very beginning for my growing up in an atmosphere poisoned with guilt and shame."

Following one lead after another, they finally focus their hopes on an abandoned child the Red Cross calls "foundling 2307." Arnold, after all, with his baby's cowlick, was lost on Jan. 20, 1945, the same day foundling 2307 was thrust, cowlick and all, into the arms of an old woman. Refused permission to meet the possible Arnold directly--out of concern for the foundling's disappointment should the identification prove false--the family fills in reams of papers and answers stacks of questionnaires. A preliminary investigation is inconclusive, as is a second. The mother sinks into a deep depression. Nevertheless, the father, popular among officials as well as butchers, decides to use his connections and navigate deeper channels. Packed into the deep seats of their Opel Admiral, the family heads off to Heidelberg and their last chance--an appointment with the renowned Baron von Liebstedt at the Institute of Forensic Anthropology in Heidelberg.

For the boy's parents, it is a trip of a lifetime. "The truth was they didn't travel because of their escape. Admittedly the escape hadn't been a trip, but all trips seemed to remind them of the escape. A farmer from Rakowiec doesn't abandon his house of his own free will. He who abandons his house commits a sin. He who abandons his house is ambushed by the Russians. He who abandons his house will have his house plundered and destroyed."

*

In Heidelberg, they allow the doctor to make molds of their feet, measure their fat with calipers and palpate the bumps on their skulls. Even the young boy, who throws up in the Opel and breaks into a sweat at the touch of the nurse's measuring tape, submits, hoping that, by being a good son, he will help disprove any familial connection to foundling 2307. To the boy's relief, every examination makes the final result less conclusive. The most the baron can say is that "foundling 2307 bore only a middling resemblance to the woman and a poor resemblance to the man, but a remarkable resemblance to the legitimate son of the married couple." Even this, however, fails to still the boy's anxiety. "I was beginning to imagine that perhaps I was related both to Arnold and the foundling, but not to my parents. In that case, my mother would not be getting back her lost son, she'd be losing her not-lost son. Then I'd be a sort of foundling too, perhaps even a Russian child."

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