In My Brother's Shadow

In In My Brother's Shadow: A Life and Death in the SS, Uwe Timm attempts to know, understand, and even come to terms with the megalomaniac mentality of a country obsessed with righteous power and rationale. His questioning begins with his brother, Karl-Heinz, who has died in service to the SS and whose diary (technically, an illegal document) is surprisingly returned to the family as part of the hero's leftover belongings. Timm's search, one which is rigorously candid and poetically apt, becomes the story of his father, his mother, and the story of his own existence as “the afterthought.” And all becomes a dreamy and at the same time nightmarish study in duality, duplicity, and multiplicity.

The text is riddled with verb tense and pronoun shifts—which turn out to be intentional, as the only viable technique to convey such shadowy realities: but rather than produce an awkward effect that merely confuses, this unique convention of shifting from first person to third, for example, creates the awareness of the author's identity as second to the dead boy his parents have sanctified, an identity that blurs, binds with, and gets lost in the war.

His parents deny answers to the child's questions, and deny any discussion of the lost son as they and a nation deny the disappearance of Jewish neighbors, as SS soldiers deny doing anything other than “following orders.” In this negligence of truth as young Uwe desperately seeks it, the details become inevitably and inextricably melded: “The boy longed fervently for boots; ” “The child followed the events with amazement; ” “He was proud of that boy;” “The boy had volunteered for an elite unit;” and “The boy was struck on the forehead by part of a bicycle thrown away by another child,” these statements become the brother who proudly wrote of his exploits and the brother who read and questioned those scant and rare and often illegible or indiscernible details.

And the results are the blurred lines and shadowy imprints of a most compelling read.