Editorial Review: Heimat by Paul Marzell
Heimat is an epic tale encompassing seventy years of the life of Matthias, a reluctant emigrant to the United States in 1929. While he seeks relief from the despair of a Germany crushed under the weight of the Versailles Treaty and is desperate to build a new life, he knows he will forever miss his home, his culture, his heimat.
Paul Marzell weaves his personal family’s chronicles into this work of fiction to provide a credible sense of history. Letters written by his German relatives form the backbone of the narrative and structure the timeline conveying the hope of Matthias’ family for both a brighter future for their lost son, brother, and nephew and for his return.
Matthias is central to the large cast of characters in this expansive undertaking. He travels to New York with his friend Josef and two unlikely new friends, Feliks—an ethnic Polish farmer, and Edo—a Jewish tailor. They are bound together by their mutual loss of family, friends and all that is familiar and the unexpected lifesaving rescue of an American diplomat, Peter, who becomes both a valuable friend and hidden manipulator in their new lives.
All four young men struggle to establish a life in an America battling economic depression and hardship. All are disappointed to find the reality of the promised jobs are shams that are demeaning to their skills and poorly paid. But each finds a new path until their lives are once more torn apart by war.
Marzell successfully conveys the trials and traumas of the emigrant experience; both the frustration of finding a new sense of place and the pain of loosening ties with a distant family shown to be unraveling through frustrated letters and pleas for a son to return to his mother.
Heimat also contains effective exploration of the bravery and courage of those who fought in many ways and in myriad locations from the bombing of Pearl Harbour to the hardships of those left to suffer across Europe in the wake of the Allied victory. For those whose historical recollection is hazy beyond the major facts, it has a wealth of context for the rise of Hitler and the political machinations and horrendous racism that blacken that period of world history. Although some readers may prefer less of a lecture interspersing the personal action of individuals far removed from power.
In trying to cover so much, Marzell does himself and his storytelling an injustice by weaving together too many strands into an epic tale that blurs and blunts the core of an immigrant’s transfer of allegiance to a new country. His observational style of writing and preference to tell rather than show push the reader too far from the emotional content. Tackling these issues of the writer’s craft would elevate Heimat from a good story to a wonderful experience.
Despite the opportunity for improvement, Heimat is a book that keeps you reading because it contains so many fascinating period vignettes and cultural awareness. Marzell provides an intriguing insight into the difficulties peculiar to Germanic immigrants living and serving another country at war with their birthplace. It highlights the ease with which Hitler mesmerized a desperate people to the bafflement of those who had escaped the homeland but loved it deeply all their lives.