THE PLOT: Set in 1948, Castle on the Border by Margot Benary is about a young girl who lives in a village between East and West Germany. After the death of her parents, sixteen-year-old Leni dreams of becoming a famous actress. Having fled from Berlin to Frankfurt as the allied forces approached, Leni is used to fending for herself. But, when she learns her aunt has inherited a castle on the border of the West Zone, she’s enticed to move in because her brother (who has been stuck in a French POW camp) has joined a theatre troupe nearby. Leni puts her ambitions to join the theatre before all else. However, when they discover the castle is also home to refugees fleeing the communist East Zone, she must realise what’s truly important in this post-war world.
RATING: This book is not perfect but I’m giving it four stars because it will always have a special place in my heart. Written in 1958 and translated from German, it provides a vivid depiction of the damage and reconstruction effort posed by WWII. With the effects of partition and refugees still roaming the country, it evokes the heartache and chaos of war. However, it is ultimately an idyllic and optimistic novel (too much so at points), that’s about mankind coming together to fight adversity. With many parallels to the effects of the current Covid-19 pandemic, I’m so glad I stumbled across this book and it has left a deep impression on me.
GOOD BITS: Given this book is no longer in print, I really want to break down why it’s so relevant to the modern pandemic. I’m loathe to compare Covid-19 to WWII because I don’t think ordinary citizens are having to exhibit the same level of courage; however, there’s a key insight into reconstruction through the strong message about importance of theatre and the arts in times of distress. Although the characters appeal to the government for help with their theatre, it’s not seen as important enough to warrant funding.
“The bureaucrats in their well-heated room displayed a benevolent interest. But their budget, they declared, was already overburdened…’ p118
Through quoting Goethe and Shakespeare, the author demonstrates how the arts are essential to bring people together and spread hope after a traumatic national (or global) event. Indeed, she places a lot of emphasis on how young people travelled throughout the country in the hope of seeing and building a new world, of which the arts is paramount. There’s a key line about having to demonstrate the worth of the arts, which I think is very poignant as we look to the devastating impact of Covid-19 on culture across the globe. I truly believe it’s up to all of us (who have stable incomes) to patronize the arts and demonstrate why they are crucial in a post-Covid world.
‘The theatre would have to prove its right to existence before it could count on assistance.’ P118
The other aspects of the book I liked were the rich descriptions of nature (there are some truly beautiful scenes) and the mix of viewpoints from the third person, omniscient narrator. The main character, Leni, is somewhat unlikeable because she’s cold and hard hearted due to the trauma of losing her parents. However, I felt this was right as she must learn to open up as the goal of the collective is more than her individual ambitions.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: While this book clearly condemns Hitler and the Third Reich, there are some notable omissions and aspects that made me uncomfortable. Overall, I can surmise this as the overly optimistic and pastoral tone, which is delightful in some areas of the book, but incongruous in others.
For example, there is a prominent scene where forty refugees from Hungary spend a night in the castle cellars. They recount how they were forcibly removed from their homeland by the Third Reich and have been moved from camp to camp ever since. It’s an emotive and heartbreaking scene but quickly shifts as they all begin to dance. This felt very jarring and out of context. Immediately after the dance one of the refugees dies in childbirth and the actions of the others are completely baffling and unrealistic.
This book does not mention Judaism or the Holocaust. I am a firm believer in judging books within the context they were written. However, I think this is a problem given the aforementioned scene regarding refugees. This would have been an appropriate time to pay respect to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust but it seems deliberately omitted. This is particularly poignant as after this scene there are several mentions of visitors from around the world coming to the castle, including someone from India and a debate with an “American Negro” over “the race problem in America”. Indeed, after the debate, the narrator says:
“She began to feel sorry for people who were locked up within their own prejudices as though they were behind prison walls. It seemed to her grotesque that only a year ago she had divided people into categories and judged them according to formulas.” P210
Given the overall message of young people across the world uniting and throwing off their prejudices, the omission of the Holocaust does not sit right.
I also expected (and wanted) to learn more about the partition of Germany. The refugees played a very small role in the novel. There are a few instances with smugglers; but there is very little insight into the damage of partition. The one person who could’ve elicited this is quickly sidelined and it feels like he’s a plot device, rather than a rounded character.
OVERALL: There are a lot of themes and plotlines in this book, which fit together perfectly with a strong overriding message. Despite some disappointing elements, including the omission of the Holocaust, transparent/convenient plot devices, and a lack of focus on the effects of the partition of Germany, I really enjoyed reading it. This book opened up my mind to really think about the effects of war and reconstruction, including the plight of refugees. Additionally, the writing is simply beautiful. I’d recommend this if you love Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee or The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Armin.