Vintage Classics have published Erich Maria Remarque’s unfinished novel, The Promised Land, in its first English translation. Remarque is best known for his stunning novel All Quiet on the Western Front, and had an interesting history himself; he was exiled from Nazi Germany and was consequently ‘deprived’ of his German citizenship, choosing to make his home in both Switzerland and the United States.
The Promised Land begins in 1942, within a detention centre on Ellis Island, New York. The first person narrator and protagonist of the piece, Ludwig Somner, ‘finds himself adrift in this promised land, living the precarious life of a refugee amongst a community held together by an unspeakable past’. As his story goes on, Somner begins to subscribe to the notion of the American Dream, but his memories of the darkest days of war conflict with his new life throughout.
The novel, says its blurb, presents ‘a haunting snapshot of a unique time, place and predicament… [and] is a wonderful evocation of a city, a gripping exploration of an individual haunted by the past and another powerful comment from Remarque on the devastating effects of war’. As in All Quiet on the Western Front, scenes are vividly evoked; at the beginning of the novel, for example, Remarque writes the following: ‘The city was dangled in front of me for three weeks, but it might well have been on a different planet. It was no more than a couple of miles away, the other side of a narrow sea channel I could almost have swum across; but it was so far out of my reach, it might have been surrounded by an armoured column of tanks. It was defended by the strongest walls the twentieth century could devise: walls of paper, passport and visa regulations, the inhuman laws of an indifferent bureaucracy’.
The Promised Land contains a ‘Translator’s Afterword’, written by Michael Hoffman, which is a very nice touch. Hofmann deems the novel ‘the story of a season and a city… The book it seems Remarque originally had it in mind to write was a story of return and revenge; the testing to its destruction of its author’s “militant pacifism”‘. He then goes on to talk about unfinished novels in the following way: ‘Can you really find it in you, dear reader, to think less of them than of their signed, sealed and delivered peers?’
The Promised Land has been both beautifully penned and thoughtfully translated. Remarque’s use of the first person narrative perspective is strong, and one gets a feel for Somner’s position in the world, and his frustration about it, immediately. The Promised Land is a compulsively readable, and rather marvellous historical novel.