Book review: Reunion

REUNION tells the story of Hans Schwarz, a lonely Jewish boy, and the friendship he forms with an equally lonely new arrival at their exclusive Stuttgart high school, Konradin von Hohenfels.

Book review: Reunion

Fred Uhlman

Vintage Classics, £7.99; Kindle, £3.95

Konradin is a kind of royalty, descended from an elite, wealthy and historically significant Swabian family.

Both possessed of sensitive, artistic hearts, they quickly form a deep bond, exploring the countryside together, enjoying their coin collections, discussing poetry, music and girls, debating the existence of God, sharing dreams.

But even as life begins to blossom, they also feel the first stirrings of a disturbing awakening: Fascism is on the rise, and Germany, for so long such a bastion of culture, is changing.

Subtle at first, Hans becomes aware that he is different.

Konradin is made welcome in the Schwarz home and feels comfortable there, but on the few occasions that Hans visits the Hohenfels mansion, his friend’s parents are absent.

There are glimpses of disquiet though, not least the framed picture of Hitler on a bedroom dresser.

And when, while attending a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio, he crosses paths with Konradin and his family, he feels deliberately snubbed.

The following day, he broaches the subject, and discovers the cold shoulder had been an attempt at protection rather than behaviour motivated by shame.

Konradin’s mother has a deep hatred and terror of Jews, and sees Hitler as her nation’s saviour, a figure sent by God.

Their friendship continues, but with this new understanding it feels lessened somehow.

What follows is an inexorable degeneration. A newly arrived history teacher, a Prussian, speaks of “dark forces”, and espouses the ancient credentials of the Aryan race, claiming credit for the emergence of the great civilization of ancient Greece and for the Renaissance — thanks to the German Emperors’ descent on Italy.

Among themselves, the more intelligent boys dismiss his theories — “What about the civilization of China? And the Arabs? And the Incas? Hasn’t he ever heard of Ravenna, the idiot?” — but those less inclined towards serious thought find appeal within such theories.

And as the weeks pass, and as Swastikas appear on graffiti, so the classroom prejudice strengthens.

On the surface, Reunion seems quite slight, a novella penned in concise, caressing prose that reads deceptively easily and which can be consumed or absorbed in a single sitting.

But few novels that make it onto the shelves this year will possess as much depth of feeling, or such a sense of humanity, as this one.

There have been a lot of books written about the Holocaust, and about those who survived, escaped or somehow avoided the death camps. The story that Uhlman elects to tell is altogether more gentle, but no less affecting.

In a minimum of pages he manages to create entire lives and to depict a nation twisted towards madness and on the brink of coming apart at the seams.

A study of friendship, class divide and, in some ways, the cowardice of the intellect, it is also an astonishing representation of love’s endurance, ‘love’ in its purest sense.

All of these qualities make for a book worth reading, yet what elevates this one into the category of greatness is how it builds to a magnificent, breathtaking and transformative ending, a closing note as exquisite as it is utterly unforgettable. With this delicate piece of fiction, first published to little fanfare in 1971, Vintage have unearthed a small, overlooked masterpiece.

Reunion could well be the literary revelation of the year.

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