A POSTCARD FROM THE VOLCANO
A novel of pre-war Germany
by Lucy Beckett
(Ignatius, 2009, 520pp,$39.95, ISBN: 978-1-58617-269-5)
A Postcard from the Volcano tells the tale of Max von Hofmannswaldau from his childhood until his departure from Nazi Germany.
Author Lucy Beckett is a former teacher who has written a number of books, including a previous work of fiction, The Time Before You Die.
The narrative begins in 1961 with Max dying in London. Certain details about him are revealed to readers, which immediately raise questions in their minds.
The protagonist is supporting himself, teaching the violin, leaving the reader to wonder why he left Nazi Germany.
His request to see a priest on his deathbed when, unbeknown to his favorite pupil, he had been a Catholic, raises the question of his religious background.
The final detail, from which the novel gains its title, is a postcard found amongst his effects, listing his six closest friends, all of whom died in World War II.
The narrative then recounts Max's life, beginning with the outbreak of World War I in 1914 while he is still a child.
The son of a Prussian aristocratic landowner, like his brothers, Max is destined for a military career as a cavalry officer, a prospect he does not relish.
However, with the drastic reduction in the size of the German Army under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and a sudden change in his family situation, Max is able to pursue his dream of studying in a Gymnasium (secondary school), moving to Breslau where he lives with his widowed maternal grandfather, Dr Mayer.
At school he meets Adam Zapolski, raised a Catholic, yet an atheist enthralled by the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. At this point, the narrative focuses on their burgeoning friendship.
After an interlude of a few years in the mid-1920s, the narrative resumes in the late 1920s. After grandfather Mayer's death, Adam and Joachim von Treuburg, a medical student, share Max's apartment.
Their circle is augmented by Anna Grossman, a Jewess from a wealthy family, and Dr Halpern and his sister Eva, a Jewish doctor and his sister from Vilna.
Through the conversations the friends have with each other, and other influential characters, such as Max's tutor and gymnasium teacher, the characters explore questions such as whether God exists, and what the purpose and meaning of human existence are.
Key moments in the narrative are Adam's decision to re-embrace his Catholic faith, and Max's decision to enter the Church.
However, the events of the narrative are played out with the gradual rise of the Nazi party and Hitler's appointment as Chancellor in 1933. It is at this point that Max is faced with grave decisions.
Convinced that the Nazis have an evil agenda, he cannot understand why so many Germans willingly support them. Despite being a Prussian aristocrat – throughout the course of the novel characters instinctively address him as "Count" – in the eyes of the Nazis he is a Jew on account of his mother's heritage.
Although her first novel The Time Before You Die was well-written, Lucy Beckett has matured considerably as a writer. The suspense – particularly why Max left Nazi Germany - is maintained until the end of the novel.
The final page, a transcription of the postcard revealing the barest details about the fates of Max's friends, raises more questions and provides an introit for her subsequent novel.
A Postcard from the Volcano was a novel that I found extremely hard to put down, and one of the best I have read, certainly in recent years. 10 out of 10 with five gold stars: what more can I say!