Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Graffiti Knight by Karen Bass
Seventeen-year-old Wilhelm (Wilm) Tauber lives in what remains of Leipzig after extensive Allied bombing during World War II. He shares a bombed out apartment with his mother and father and his twenty-year-old sister, Annelise. Wilm's father was a German soldier who lost his leg during the war. Left for dead by his platoon, American doctors amputated his leg and sent him to POW camp.
Wilm, with his friends Georg Rohrbach and Karl, watches and listens from his hiding place as his father is beaten by four Schutzpolizisten (Schupos). The Schupos are German police who work for the occupying Soviets and are known for their brutality. Wilm and Karl feel they exist behind enemy lines with the occupation of part of their country by the Soviets. With the help of his friends, Wilm takes his father home in Frau Nikel's wheelbarrow as he is unable to walk. After a dinner of thin potato soup, Wilm's father sits down to drink and angry words with his son. That night Wilm sleeps on the rug in Annelise's room because he doesn't want to listen to his father rant about the war and the loss of his leg.
At school Wilm is a poor, unfocused student and his lack of effort is especially noticed in Herr Bader's mathematics class. He asks Wilm why his marks are so poor and suggests he learn what the problem is and fix it. For Wilm school means nothing because it will not alleviate his hunger nor get his family a larger apartment. After school one day, Wilm, Georg and Karl are challenged to a soccer game by a group of Schupos that includes Anneliese's old boyfriend, Ernst Weber. After the game, Johanna Fahr, a childhood friend of Wilm arrives. She has grown up now and is very beautiful and Wilm finds her attractive. Johanna tells Wilm she's meeting her boyfriend, Ernst, and this leads Wilm to wonder when Ernst started dating Johanna and the circumstances of his break-up with Anneliese. When Wilm questions Ernst as to why he broke up with his sister, he tells him "I like my women...untouched." Wilm has no idea what Ernst means.
On Saturdays Wilm travels to his Uncle Bruno's farm in Engelsdorf where he works in exchange for food. His mother works as a Trummerfrauen or "rubble women", clearing the rubble created by the Allied bombing of Leipzig in exchange for extra rations. Over a lunch of fried onions, potatoes and sausages, Uncle Bruno tells Wilm to finish his education and that there is no future in small farms like his. When a thunderstorm comes up that evening, Uncle Bruno teaches Wilm how to fire the Luger pistol under the cover of the thunder.
At home things grow worse between Wilm and his angry, drunk father, who refuses the food Wilm brings back from the farm. Wilm retreats to the roof of the house and is soon joined by Anneliese, whom he questions about Ernst. Wilm tells Anneliese that she has changed since she broke up with Ernst. She wears boys clothes and creeps to work at a seamstresses shop. He tells her that Ernst claimed she cheated on him. Anneliese tells her brother about the day she went to the train station to meet Ernst who was returning from a British prisoner-of-war camp. Their mother warned her that it was not safe, but she went anyway. Anneliese tells him that she was raped by four Soviet soldiers and that Ernst saw the attack but did not intervene because he couldn't. When Wilm asks her why, Anneliese states, "Because they were Soviets. They attack whomever they choose. They kill whomever they choose. To interfere is to die. Where have you been these last two years?" When Wilm confronts his mother the next day she tells him that this is the way things are now and that they "must bear up under it." and that talking about it changes nothing. "...This is the world we live in now. Understand it. What happened was awful. But do you think Anneliese is the only woman to be attacked since the Soviets arrived? Far from it. the best we can hope is that they don't kill us or our men when they're finished with us."
The next day after scoring a ninety-two percent on his mathematics test, Wilm is pressured by Karl to prove his loyalty, considering they are "behind enemy lines" after he walked past two Schupos without doing anything. Karl tells Wilm he must go to the missing person's registry office to see how many Schupos are present. While Karl and Georg watch, Wilm sneaks up to two military trucks. Calmly Wilm stabs the front and back tires of a truck and then walks towards the Barthelshof archway as the tires explode. When the three boys meet up Karl tells Wilm what he did was dangerous as the Soviets jail those who resist. Wilm states he's not a "Wolverine" but that "Crazy is playing at being behind enemy lines but never sabotaging the enemy if you get the chance." Karl is furious at Wilm and the two begin to fight. They are pulled apart by an older man who identifies himself as Otto Steinhauer. Otto tells them he works for the SED (the German Socialist Party) as an engineer contracted to inspect bridges. Walking away from Otto, Karl asks Wilm why he vandalized the Soviet military trucks and Wilm tells him it is payback and justice. Karl knows about Soviet justice as his father is languishing in a Soviet prison camp but he's not sure what Wilm is referring to.
The following Monday after school, Wilm seeks out Otto who tells him about how he uses mathematics to repair bridges. Otto also reveals that he knows Wilm was responsible for the damaged Soviet trucks and warns him that the Soviets do not consider what he is doing a "game". Otto gives Wilm his gold engineering band as a token of his trust. When Wilm arrives home the following Sunday after spending the weekend at his uncle's farm he finds two Schupos at his family's apartment. They have received an anonymous tip that some Schutzpolizei beat his father in the street. After questioning Wilm and later, Karl, they leave. On Tuesday, Wilm, Karl, Georg learn that a crowd has gathered at the Bahnhof (train station) where a train full of prisoners of war is returning. However the Soviets will not let any of the men off the train, intending instead to send them east to the camps. This result in an angry mob confronting the soldiers. Wilm starts trouble by cutting off a metal service bar from Schupo next to him. As he backs away from the fight he also helps a veteran who starts singing the "Deutschland Uber Alles". When Karl learns what Wilm did, he's furious because with his father as a Soviet prisoner of war, he knows how the families in the square felt. It is this situation that motivates Karl to help Wilm in his plan to humiliate their Soviet occupiers.
At first Wilm's acts are simple; bitumen is used to write graffiti on "the light-colored stones of the SED headquarters near Augustusplatz". After an altercation between Ernst, Anneliese and Wilm, which sets Anneliese's recovery back, Wilm becomes determined to wage a "war or embarrassment." He can't strike at Ernst personally "But every Schupo I embarrass will have his face in my mind." When Otto realizes he cannot talk Wilm out of his "war" he gives him the name of a contact in Munich. His next action is to paint a large white marionette on the side of the Schutzpolizei headquarters, indicating that the German police are the puppets of the Soviets.
Otto tells Wilm that the SED are furious and have increased the number of patrols. The next action is accomplished also with the help of Karl. He places a huge wasp nest inside one of the troop transport trucks. The following Saturday, Karl, Georg and Ruth tell Wilm that the rumour is that the Soviets have seized yet another shipment of butter. Furious at discovering this is true, Wilm with the help of his friends seized some of the butter back from the Soviets in a late night raid that almost sees him get caught.
Although Otto warns him about the dangers of his actions,Wilm becomes more determined than ever. He and Karl leave drawings of Wilm's "stickman puppet and and capital M on the doors of government buildings, including the Schutzpolzei headquarters." When a situation occurs at the theatre during a Soviet propaganda film, and Georg is arrested, Wilm decides to go to the police station to see if he can free Georg. Both Wilm and Karl are terrified that Georg will reveal their actions if he is interrogated by the police. This results in Wilm making a deal with Ernst that he will become a Schupo in exchange for Georg's freedom.
However a series of events are about to be set in motion when Karl shows Wilm his discovery of the rumoured secret cache of weapons at his mother's beer hall, the Stag's Horn. Wilm manages to sneak out a long grenade without Karl's knowledge. And he soon forms a plan to send a "message" to the Soviets during the visit of a Soviet general. Unfortunately, the action goes terribly wrong and as Otto once warned, Wilm's actions have implications that ripple out to many innocent people including his family and friends.
Bass paints a detailed picture of life in Leipzig; mounds of rubble from bombed out buildings, pharmacies lacking in medicine, food shortages in the city, (Wilm's family eat thin potato soup and rarely have meat.), brutal Soviet soldiers who beat men and rape the local women, and German police who instead of protecting their countrymen play a part in their subjugation. Bass uses various characters in the novel to present different aspects of life under Soviet rule. The characters of Anneliese, Wilm's mother, Herr Bader portray the fear experienced by the German people now occupied by the Soviets. Ruth and Georg are used to demonstrate the fierce hunger that many faced as the Soviets confiscate their food. Otto represents how some German's tried to work within the system yet not be a part of it. And Ernst demonstrates what happens when one actively participates in an evil regime and himself becomes corrupted.
Bass sets up the character of Ernst Weber as the antagonist early in the novel. When it is revealed what happened to Anneliese, it becomes apparent that Ernst is not an honourable man. Not only does he ditch his girlfriend after she's been raped but he lies to her brother implying that she was unfaithful to him, when in reality she was raped. Throughout the novel, the brutality and cruelness of Ernst becomes more and more apparent. When Wilm does a good deed in walking Ernst's girlfriend, Johanna home, he is threatened repeatedly by him. He believes Wilm will behave as other men have and try to take Johanna away from him. Later on, he forces Wilm to promise to join the Schupos in exchange for his friend, Georg's freedom. Ernst becomes so determined to hunt down Wilm that even when Wilm has crossed the Czech border into West Germany, he continues shooting. If it were not for the Americans Ernst would have crossed into West Germany and killed Wilm. The character of Ernst proves that Otto was right to warn Wilm about honouring his promise to Ernst to join the Schupos. Ernst fulfils Otto's predictions that those who side with evil eventually do evil and find themselves doing things things they never imagined they could do.
In contrast to Ernst is Wilm Tauber. When Wilm learns about his sister's rapes he is devastated and wants revenge. Feeling powerless he begins to strike out in small ways to embarrass the Soviets and the Schupos. But his mentor, Otto Steinhauer, a structural engineer is concerned for Wilm. During the war Otto passed secrets to the British, so although employed by the SED, he understands Wilms feelings. After hearing about the events at the train station, Otto tells Wilm he fears for him. "You think you are untouchable, yet experience is a cruel teacher." With Otto, Wilm can talk about what has happened to his family; the rape of his sister, his troubles with Ernst and his father. Otto tries to talk Wilm out of his plans, encouraging him to study engineering at the university in Munich where his friend works. He could learn to build bridges, he tells Wilm. "Building is much more satisfying than destroying." but at this point Wilm is bent on retaliation.
Otto also attempts to convey to Wilm the effects his actions are having on innocent people. When Wilm stole the butter from the Soviets, Otto tells him "Do you fancy yourself a folk hero? I hope not. Those railyard guards spent half the day in unpleasant interrogations because of you. Collusion. Do you know that word. It means they thought the guards were working with you." Otto explains that the result of the house search led the Soviets to discover a guard who has been selling boots on the black market. "But sometimes we don't see the ripples that flow out from our actions." Otto warns Wilm that his increasingly daring actions are scaring him. Wilm knows that this is because Otto sees him becoming like the Soviets and the Schupos. The trouble is Wilm is not sure he's afraid of becoming like them.
When Wilm tells Otto about his deal with Ernst it is because his conscience is troubling him.He tries to justify his choice by telling Otto he could learn about the police and use that knowledge against them. However Otto tells Wilm he is fooling himself, that some of the people he would be hunting down, would not be criminals. "Some of them would be young men like you, young men whose sisters were raped and who need to find some kind of justice, young men who want some freedom." Otto tells Wilm that his choice will turn him into an oppressor. "You will end up doing things you never dreamed possible. You should have trusted your friend more, and trusted that he would not betray you when they questioned him."
When Wilm's attempts to burn the Soviet barracks turn deadly he is horrified that he may have killed men - even Soviets. But Wilm proves he is different from Ernst when they meet outside Bad Elster. Ernst mistakes Wilm's reluctance to shoot him as cowardice, but Wilm tells him, "No," I whispered. "I have the guts. But pulling that trigger, killing and unarmed man, would make me...just like you. And I refuse to become that."
Graffiti Knight is replete with the themes of redemption, honour and forgiveness. Wilm's father feels that his life after the war, with a missing leg is without honor. "Why didn't they let me die on the battlefield?" Father rapped his empty glass on the shelf beside his chair. "I was their enemy. They should have let me die...There's honor in dying on the battlefield...With tears clinging to his lashes, he whispered, "What honor is in this, Wilhelm?" He slapped the thigh of his amputated leg. "What hope for any honor at all?" In the end his father recovers his honour by attacking Ernst Weber during his interrogation. Instead of the reaction he is expecting, Ernst is thanked by Wilm for giving his father the opportunity to die honourably on the battlefield.
One of the subjects Bass tackles in her book is the widespread rape of German women by Soviet soldiers. It was recently revealed that around 400,000 children were conceived as a result of rape and love affairs by occupying troops.
Karen Bass's novel also drives home the realities war brings to mankind; destruction, famine, and great suffering on many levels. People do things in war that they might never conceive of in times of peace.
Graffiti Knight has a map of the setting for the story and the Historical Note at the back provides some background information for the time period of the novel. Well written, engaging, with realistic characters and a believable plot, Graffiti Knight is another fine novel from Canadian author Karen Bass.
Graffiti Knight by Karen Bass
Toronto: Pajama Press 2013