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Pieces of a discomfiting past

Dreams, memories mix in bitter account of war

In My Brother's Shadow: A Life and Death in the SS
By Uwe Timm
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 150 pp., $18

Read it in one sitting, if you can. Take it all at once, a pint of beer laced with unripe currants. This bitter memoir, only 150 pages, is constructed as a series of associations. One incident brings to mind another, perhaps occurring earlier, perhaps later. Time's one-way flow is ignored in the swirling brew of anecdote, dream, allusion, and speculation.

''In My Brother's Shadow" is the work of the acclaimed German novelist Uwe Timm. It is the story of a dead boy; of National Socialism and its brutalities; of a Chosen People (the Aryan nation, in this case); of prison bestiality; of marriage and loyalty and fate and illness. It is the story of the author's father. He was often charming, a gifted raconteur. He walked under an unlucky cloud, flashing a silver tongue. He is the latest in the line of feckless fellows who sire brilliant children: père Dickens, père Joyce, père le Carré. Pêre Timm was born in 1899. At 22 he married the author's mother, then 19. Their first child was that common disappointment, a daughter. She was swarthy as well. The second, a beloved pale boy, was born in 1924. The third, also a boy, Uwe, the afterthought, comes in 1940.

In 1942 the older boy, Karl-Heinz, volunteers for the elite Death's Head division of the German Army. In the summer of 1943 he is wounded on the Russian front. Both legs are amputated. By September he is dead.

During the previous July, the father, serving in the Luftwaffe, wrote to Karl-Heinz that their home in Hamburg, along with most of the city, had been destroyed by British bombs. The author reprints this letter augmented with other accounts: how windows exploded one by one; how the bombs sprayed phosphorus everywhere; how people on fire jumped into the canals, but the phosphorus burned in the water, too.

In the postwar years Uwe's father becomes a furrier. His business prospers for a while, then declines. He dies in 1959. Thirty-three years later his mother dies, and soon after that his sister, too; and so the memoirist can at last begin his rueful work. In restrained sentences -- undramatic adjectives, infrequent adverbs, unrevealed proper names -- incidents flame like phosphorus.

The afterthought examines Karl-Heinz's meager wartime diary. In the entry for March 21, 1943, there are two fragments:

''Bridgehead on the Donez. 75 m away Ivan smoking cigarettes, fodder for my MG [machine gun]."

This entry returns again and again to the narration, like an evil bird alighting on the lines of prose. And did Karl-Heinz fire that MG? the younger brother wonders. And the hapless Russian so unwisely smoking -- did he fall? And what was the fair-haired brother thinking? And Ivan -- what was he thinking?

There are some good years for the Timm family. For Uwe's father they come in the early 1950s, when he has money to throw around and customers to impress. His mother spends her long widowhood running the fur business, enjoying almond cake with afternoon tea, occasionally attending the opera. His unmarried sister meets the love of her life in her 70s. She buys new clothes -- red gloves! Timm takes the trouble to record this -- red gloves for a woman whose father did not care for a girl.

And the author's good years? They are not mentioned in the book; instead we see a boy who grows to detest his father and his country's past, who turns toward leftist politics and the repudiation of authority. But in an interview recorded elsewhere Timm tells of an encounter. He is in middle age, driving in Namibia to do research. He becomes lost. He asks a shepherd how to get to the village of Ukamas, and the shepherd gives him directions to a fork. If you take a left you will reach a bump, and ''then you see a big boulder lying there against a tree. The tree is very big; it takes three people to reach around it. When you see the tree, then you know you have taken the wrong way." Timm is exalted by this exchange: describing a path he would never see, the shepherd has shown him a way to tell a story.

''In My Brother's Shadow" describes things the narrator did not see: things pulled from diaries, imagined after conversations, read. He looks for examples of high courage, saying no. He reports tales of a few German soldiers who refused to shoot Russian captives. He cherishes the account of a German officer in uniform who walks the streets of his hometown with a friend, who is wearing his own insignia: a yellow star. And he reports also the story of Babi Yar, where 30,000 Jews were killed by Nazis and not one German soldier said no.

Timm worries about ''the danger of smoothing it all out in the telling." He has avoided that danger in this remarkable work made up of rough tales lifted from individual and collective histories. The episodes are brought into the light, and illuminated. And there, illuminated, is the story -- of a fair-haired soldier, of a good-enough family, of a dysfunctional society becoming first grotesque and then unspeakable.

Edith Pearlman is the author of ''How to Fall," a collection of stories.

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