What if you discovered that your family committed war-crimes? What if you discovered this after having developed a relationship to one of the victims of these crimes? Can one say with certainty that you do not have the traits that lead your family to commit such atrocities? These are some of the questions that face Werner Zilch.
Werner is a forceful man. Everything about him is defined by his fierceness. He is 6 feet 4 inches tall and muscular with it. He has an awful temper. He is extremely ambitious in his career. As we later learn, he was born during a bomb-raid; a world of violence. He is confrontational in his manner towards competitors, taxi drivers he dislikes and men he perceive has rivals for women’s attention. Werner is popular with the fairer sex. Partly because of his demanding body and his obvious interest in non–committal one-night stands. That is until he spots Rebecca and crashes into her car on purpose in order to catch her attention.
Strangely, Rebecca very much enjoys Werner’s unconventional approach to dating. Her intelligence and beauty, soon capture Werner’s heart and to the astonishment of everyone that knows him, Werner declares himself ready for monogamy and eternal love. Their lives would be bliss-full and perfect if not for a disastrous dinner with Rebecca’s parents in which her dad demonstrates his utter loathing for Werner, and Rebecca’s mother begins to undress for her daughter’s boyfriend. Why Rebecca’s mother act this way? Why does Rebecca disappear after that day? One major clue is the tattooed numbers on the mother’s arm. And the answer appears to lie in Germany, the country from which Werner was adopted from in 1948.
In parallell with Werner’s tale in America in the 1970s, we are served the story of his birth and babyhood in Germany at the end of the war. Usually I dislike this switching backwards and forwards in time. Mainly because the supposed connection between events in the past and the present appears tenuous at best. Would anyone become as obsessed about past events as they do in these novels? Would they really be able to discover that many clues and tie up the story so neatly? I highly doubt it. But in this book, it works. Perhaps because it seems extremely plausible to me that a young man would want to make sure he is not the son of an SS-officer who worked in Auschwitz. Werner’s investigations also take place only a few decades after the war; plenty of people would be around who could give him information. Another reasons for why the structure works so well is probably because the author does not withhold information from us. We know right away who Werner’s parents are, and halfway through the book we understand how he ended up in the States. The suspense is derived not from what happened, but how Werner will react.
I became quite fond of Werner. Despite him being very much a man of his time: He prefers women to do the cooking for him, he is insecure about his humble childhood in New Jersey, he assumes that he should be allowed to sleep with any woman in sight but experiences explosive bouts of jealousy if Rebecca as much as talks to a man. Werner is driven to become wealthy and be recognized as successful. It is never stated, but part of his attraction to Rebecca seems partly to stem from her firm entrenchment in the New York elite. She knows Warhol, Ginsberg and has grown up in an extremely wealthy family. Worries about money never cross her mind. Rebecca’s identity as an upper-class woman both attracts him and makes him insecure.
The domineering part of Werner’s personality contrasts with the more careful peace loving natures of the people he grew up with. His adoptive parents adore their little boy and love each other. His sister is a convert to spiritualism and although opposed to her brother’s materialistic life style, she could not do enough for him. His best friend Marcus is careful in his approach to business, love and friendship. A stark contrast to Werner. As the story unfolds questions arise within Werner’s mind: How much of his personality is inherited from his biological parents? Would he have thrived in or opposed the Third Reich? He meets Van Braun, an ex-SS officer and a key figure in the development of the American space program as well as a key figure in Werner’s early story. Van Braun is kind and empathetic to those around him. A pleasant family man who also ran a slave camp in Germany and built missiles. Can we really tell from a persons bearing whether they could be capable of war crimes?
I have been blessed with a number of terrific books in the past weeks, and The Last of Our Kind joins this list of nice reads. My main problem with the book is how neat the ending was. Don’t get me wrong, I do not think every book needs an absolutely open ending. But here, absolutely every thread was tied up, everyone got their version of a happy ending. It breaks with the realism that defines the earlier parts of the book. But it is absolutely worth the read!