Reunion by Fred Uhlman
As I’ve often mentioned on the Ramblings, I’m rather blessed by the number of local charity shops and the wonderful finds I sometimes make in them – books I’ve been after for a while, old out of print treasures and unexpected surprises. I’ve been trying to control the buying a little recently, but I stumbled recently across a book I’d never heard of that comes into the unexpected category.
It’s so slim that I almost missed it in the modern fiction section (where I don’t normally go) but the Harvill Panther logo on the spine caught my eye and I thought I’d give it a try, as the blurb on the back intrigued me. And I’m obviously in novella mode, as this book is only 83 pages long!!
“Reunion” tells the story of a friendship between two young – middle class Jew Hans and aristocratic Gentile Konradin. The boys are classmates and although not obvious companions, they hit it off and an intense friendship develops as they have much in common in their interests. However, the relationship is one that is obviously doomed from the start – as the story is set in 1932, and the boys are living in a Germany that is gradually coming under the influence of Hitler and the Nazis…
The next few months were the happiest of my life. Spring came and the whole country was one mass of blossoms, cherry and apple, pear and peach, while the poplars took on their silver and the willows their lemon yellow. The soft, serene bluish hills of Swabia were covered with vineyards and orchards and crowned with castles…
The story is told very lyrically – the boys spend most of their time together outside, with Konradin eventually making visits to Hans’ home. However, Hans only visits Konradin’s rather grander house occasionally, and, as he comes to realise, only when the latter’s rather anti-Semitic mother is absent… As the book progresses, the security of their world begins to show cracks – the sports teacher wears a swastika, anti-Semitic comments become more common, Konradin blanks Hans when they encounter one another at the Opera, and violence against Jews begins. What’s chilling is the refusal of some of the Jewish characters to recognise what is happening – at one point, Hans’ father states:
I know my Germany. This is a temporary illness, something like measles, which will pass as soon as the economic situation improves. Do you really believe the compatriots of Goethe and Schiller, Kant and Beethoven will fall for this rubbish?
Alas, fall they did.
I’m not going to say much about the resolution of this small volume, but it’s one of those novels with a killer last line (no peeking!) and a very emotional ending. It captures quite brilliantly the fragility and intensity of the friendship between the adolescent boys (whether there are meant to be hints of anything more than friendship I don’t know – and in the end, it doesn’t matter). The events that take place and the effect they have on Hans are dramatic but told in a quite straightforward way, which is all the more devastating.
It’s hard not to read “Reunion” autobiographically: Uhlman was born in Stuttgart, Germany, moved to Paris when Hitler came to power as Chancellor and then moved to Spain, and eventually London. He spent the rest of his life there, until his death in 1985, and was a notable painter. The book was his only novel and it’s a lyrical and very moving piece of storytelling. I’m still often surprised about how much can be told in so few words (although I shouldn’t be, having read so many amazing novellas recently). Uhlman’s wonderful book is a testament to a friendship and a chilling reminder of the effect totalitarianism can have on people. I’m very glad I stumbled on this one!