cover image The Turncoat

The Turncoat

Siegfried Lenz, trans. from the German by John Cullen. Other Press, $17.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-590510-53-7

Lenz (1926–2014) effectively mines his experiences in the German army for this memorable account of a German soldier, written in 1951 and posthumously published. Six years after fighting in WWII, Walter Proska plans to write a confessional letter to his sister, blaming himself for her living alone, and prepares for her to curse him in response. Walter then flashes back to the war and his first encounter with Wanda, an attractive Polish woman whose life he helps save before learning she is a partisan with plans to blow up the train they’ve been riding on. The story line builds through camraderie between Walter and his fellow soldier Milk Roll and encounters with Walter’s brother-in-law, and on the battlefield and prison camp, where Walter’s allegiance is sorely tested. A gut-punch of a climax brings out the full ramifications of a central tragedy, which only becomes clear at the very end. Lenz is especially good at conveying the quotidian details of a German army grunt, from the way his comrades achieve sexual release by using trees, to making sure that a gift intended for an officer who’s killed before he receives it is still made use of. Lenz’s meaningful exploration of loyalty owed to one’s country and family is packed with thrills and chills. (Sept.)