"The Newts" by Volker Widmann: When silence is not the answer

The brother dies in a terrible incident, leaving Max full of guilt, alone and in need himself.

"The Newts" by Volker Widmann: When silence is not the answer

The brother dies in a terrible incident, leaving Max full of guilt, alone and in need himself. "The Molche" tells of childhood after the Second World War, brutalization, silence and how it can be escaped.

A winter's day in Bavarian post-war Germany, children are tobogganing on the village slope and sliding on icy puddles. On that day, eleven-year-old Max's brother died. He fell victim to Chernik, which "every child in the village feared because of its brutality and cunning." Tschernik has gathered a group of 13 to 14-year-olds who cruelly enforce the unwritten laws of the village children, especially against newcomers. This group throws bricks until Max's brother dies. And Max runs away.

The first chapter of Volker Widmann's "Die Molche" has it all. The almost idyllic descriptions of the snowy hill and the brick bunker, in the depths of which the brother is cornered and killed, do not change that. After that day, Max is left feeling very guilty, while the village wants to see the crime as an accident.

But something has changed. Max, who as a refugee child finds it difficult to find his way into the village community, continues to be bullied, but after this outrageous act there are also allies. The boy makes friends with Heinz and Rudi. They make the old gatekeeper's house their headquarters. And there are the girls, Ellie, Charlotte, the twins Mia and Pia and above all Marga, who is smart, brave and smells of lavender soap.

Widmann depicts a society in which children do not know much about their parents and parents even less about their children. Max and his friends roam the forest finding deer bones, catching newts and carving. They share secret treasures and give each other what they need most, friendship and loyalty.

They talk about what is otherwise only kept silent. Money, sex, and war wounds are somehow shrouded in mystery and menace, though every child senses that these unspoken experiences destroy adults. "Sometimes my mother talks about the flight," says Heinz. "Before the Russians. Was it the Russians? My father never says anything anyway. Never. He chokes on his mouth again."

Only when the parents start beating does all the fearfulness that is assumed to break out of the mothers and above all the fathers break out. "Then they can't stop." Suddenly, the silence about Max's brother's death makes sense. And it is even more important not to surrender to Tschernik and his gang, not to let their crime go unpunished. Over the course of the summer, the children grow together as a community and make plans to break Chernik's power.

For his debut, Widmann, born in 1952, chooses the children's perspective of the well-known story of the speechless post-war generation in Germany. Silent, absent or spanking fathers, kind and loving mothers and grandmothers, gangs of children, awakening sexuality and a summer in which many things change. This is well known, but unfortunately Widmann does not add anything new. Nevertheless, the 250 pages are a good read.

This is due to his ability to bring places and people to life in just a few words. "I got my bike out of the garage and drove off. The rain had stopped. The apple tree in the garden had a single drop hanging from the tip of every leaf, the branches bending under the weight of the unripe apples." Everyone can remember such a day. Only occasionally does Widmann's linguistic images get a little crooked or he loses himself in descriptions that remove the reader from the plot. On the other hand, the sexually charged scenes between the children are annoying, and they also add something to the story that it probably wouldn't have needed.

Max, who finds comfort in his despair, is able to mourn and grows into a life in which he will deal with the loss, is convincing. And even the brutal Tschernik is in the end more than just the village bully, but like most people perpetrator and victim at the same time.