by Rana Asfour
Sometimes a book sneaks up on you and takes you so totally by surprise that the shock of the encounter takes a while to recede, remaining lodged at the forefront of your thoughts. 'Reunion' by Fred Uhlman, is nothing short of a perfect haunting tale about a friendship destroyed by history. It was selected as Book of the Year 2016 by the Guardian, UK. Although a little known novella, it boasts fans including Ian McEwan, John Boyne, Deborah Moggach and David Nicholls.
'He came into my life in February 1932 and never left it again'. So begins Uhlman's novella narrated by Hans Schwarz, 'the son of a Jewish doctor, grandson and great-grandson of a Rabbi, and of a line of merchants and cattle dealers'. Schwarz years later is remembering his sixteen-year-old self when he attended school at the Karl Alexander Gymnasium in Stuttgart, Württemberg's most famous school founded in 1521 run by Herr Zimmermann, who all the students treat with 'contempt and occasionally with cruelty, the cowardly cruelty which so many healthy boys show towards the weak, the old and the defenceless'.
As far as a sixteen year old's life goes, Schwarz's life, although not particularly interesting, follows in typical fashion that of his teenage peers until in walks golden boy Graf Konradin von Hohenfels, a young member of the illustrious Swabian family whose ancestors had once tried to save the great Barbarossa while others were decorated war heroes who had died in the defence of their beloved Germany.
Nevertheless, and despite all their differences, Konradin and Hans become very close friends. It’s a friendship of the greatest kind, of shared interests and long conversations, of hikes in the German hills and growing up together. A coming-of-age story that Hans diligently documents in his journal.
'Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen boys sometimes combine a naïve innocence, a radiant purity of body and and mind, with a passionate urge to absolute and selfless devotion. The phase usually lasts a short time, but because of its intensity ad uniqueness it remains one of life's most precious experiences'.
Although the boys are aware of the political unrest whose 'storm-centre was far away - in Berlin, whence clashes were reported between Nazis and Communists', they remained ensconced in a 'magic circle' innocently believing that nothing could disturb their friendship. Predictably, their bubble bursts but surprisingly the inciting incident when it happens is not one which the reader is expecting.
For such a small book (96 pages) Uhlman packs in a lot of heavy discussions on religion and the existence and nature of this Higher Being. Notes on how Jews felt about a homeland in which they had to decide on 'exchanging the Rhine and Mosel, Neckar and Main for the sluggish waters of the Jordan' and of course about the evils of Nazism and the way it shattered people's belief that 'foremost they were Swabians, then Germans and then Jews'.
Totally life-changing, completely relevant to today's world and an absolute must-read.
'Reunion' was adapted for film by director Jerry Schatzberg that was released in 1989, under the same title.