This book, to me, exemplifies what great writing is capable of. If someone were to ask me what purpose novels serve, I would hand them this one.
I’ll begin with a quote from the introduction:
“January 1945. The Red Army is advancing toward East Prussia. By the end of this icy winter, nearly 750,000 refugees will attempt to escape from the front, fleeing west along the Baltic coast via two narrow strips of land . . . Along the way, 300,000 of these people will perish.”
This is the first sentence of the introduction; the first thing the reader learns upon picking up All for Nothing. It sits like an interesting fact among the countless other interesting facts we know about WWII. Maybe it would cross your mind that 300,000 is nearly half of 750,000. A striking tragedy. You’ll skim through the rest of the introduction, and then the book begins.
The reader is introduced to the members of a small mis-matched family: the 12-year-old son, the beautiful and useless mother, the 60-year-old “auntie” who keeps the mansion clean and its household fed. More characters are introduced each chapter, and through them, more background is uncovered a little at a time. Kempowski distracts the reader from the war with the slow day-to-day happenings of the characters until we are just as vaguely aware of the looming danger as the characters we’re following. And yet, we never quite forget that something terrible is on the horizon. Sentences like, “Who’d have thought it could be so cosy at the Georgenhof? They’d think of that later on,” keep the reader on edge. What is later on?
When Later On comes, it is more sudden than anyone imagined. Anyone including the son, the mother, Auntie, and you: the reader. It’s also more heartbreaking than anyone imagined. And through every page I read I thought of the title: All for Nothing. It’s nearly impossible not to think that it’s true. Every day, every friendship, every struggle, was all for nothing. But instead of reaffirming that it all is, in fact, for nothing, the title comes off more like a challenge, daring us to believe that it isn’t. That even with nothing left, there was meaning in it all anyway.