Sunday, March 24, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Flotsam by Erich Maria Remarque

It’s been eight years since I read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, a truly extraordinary classic novel about WWI. I loved the book, yet it never occurred to me to look to see what else he’d written. I’m embarrassed to admit I just assumed he’d written this one great book and nothing else of note. How wrong I was!

Flotsam is a novel about German refugees during WWII. Primarily Jews and political "criminals," thousands of people were forced to leave Germany, stripped of their passports, to become unwanted, country-less exiles. Some are little more than children deported along with their parents. Without papers, they are unable to find work or permanent residences and so live lives of hunger, uncertainty, fear, and often despair as they are deported again and again across the borders of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, and France.

The story begins in Austria and primarily follows two men as they navigate life along the borders. The first is a political dissident named Steiner who was forced to leave his beloved wife Maria behind when he fled Germany. He is a man of steady nerves, many talents, and an innate goodness. The second, Kern, is a twenty-one-year-old man tossed out of Germany with his parents. His father is Jewish; his mother is not. She was allowed to stay in Hungary because she had been born there. His father was deported and Kern lost track of him before he, too, was deported.

Steiner and Kern meet when they are both detained in Czechoslovakia and kicked across the border to Austria. Steiner takes Kern under his wing for a short while before they separate. Kern manages to find a temporary residence in a boarding home for refugees where he meets a young Jewish refugee, Ruth. The two form a bond. They link their fates to one another and quickly fall in love. Love sustains them in the trials ahead.

Like All Quiet on the Western Front, this novel is another masterpiece of historical fiction demonstrating human suffering and resilience. By relating the day-to-day struggles of refugees, it draws the reader into their lives and forces us to empathize. Flotsam realistically portrays the characters’ humanity, their kindness to one another, the constant tension of being displaced, and the simple relief in finding a safe -- though always temporary -- haven. The novel tugs at the heart and conscience of a reader who takes the security of citizenship for granted.

Flotsam is at times a hopeful novel, showing how some – even most -- people are innately good and will help those in need as best they can. People can look at injustice and recognize it for what it is. But there are too many others who will not only steal from or cheat the vulnerable, but will also take pleasure in being cruel.

Steiner is a survivor, a philosopher, and a cynic. But he is generous to those in need. Kern and Ruth are young and still hopeful. Kern is too trusting, which costs him at times, yet he does not become embittered. Despite their setbacks, Kern and Ruth do not abandon hope.

The novel shows the fates of other refugees who drift in and out of the lives of the three protagonists. Some survive. Some disappear. And some succumb to despair. It’s a beautiful novel, at once heart-wrenching and uplifting. Published in 1939, Flotsam is as relevant today as it was then.