When it finally occurred to me to do a google search for German post-apocalyptic novels, Die letzten Kinder von Schewenborn or in English The Last Children of Schewenborn (1983) was one of the first results. Its author, Gudrun Pausewang, is a heavy-weight in German young adult fiction. She is known for writing stories about big societal problems: poverty in the third world, nuclear arms, and environmental issues. Her nuclear-disaster novel Die Wolke (Fallout) was made into a film.
As you can probably tell by the cover, I read this in German. I cannot speak for the results of the English translation.
How was the book in a nutshell? Depressing. Better than Alas, Babylon. Interesting at times, bordering on dull at others. Slightly didactic. A quick, easy read.
Schewenborn is the first post-apocalyptic (PA) book I have read that takes place where I live. I reveled in that a little bit. It added to the fear the story was capable of spreading, as well as my personal enjoyment of the display of ruins. Take this (German first, my English translation second):
“Er berichtete, dass Frankfurt weg sei — einfach ganz und gar weg. Praunheim auch. Das ganze Rhein-Main-Gebiet bis hinunter nach Darmstadt und hinüber nach Mainz sei eine einzige Aschenwüste.”
(Translation: He reported that Frankfurt was gone. Simply and completely gone. Praunheim too. The entire Rhine-Main Region from Darmstadt to Mainz was a desert of ashes.)
As much as I love where I live, I can’t deny that I can also enjoy the thrill of picturing it all wiped off the Earth. Strange, perhaps, and certainly morbid, but ruins are one of the draws of the PA genre for me. Particularly when I can enjoy looking at them without them having to actually come to pass, ruining lives in their wake.
While Schewenborn doesn’t manage to be quite as bleak as The Road, it rivals its spare use of hope, perhaps even overtakes it in the end. Nothing good happens in this book. Life continues in sparse corners, but the radiation sickness persists, and we are left with the feeling that these characters might well be the last humans that will ever walk the Earth. Children are deformed and handicapped. We see them freeze to death, starve, and commit suicide. Adults lose their humanity. It’s dog eat dog (well, actually, it’s human eat dog, then rat, but she does stay away from cannibalism). People and fields become infertile. Babies are born with mutations and killed. This isn’t a book about people coming together to overcome adversity. This is a book about how absolutely fucked we are if the nuclear shit hits the fan. Radiation isn’t something that can be quickly overcome. Not by humans. And ultimately, that is Pausewang’s point.
In her afterward to the book, Pausewang tells a story about a protest that she took part in—and that worked. She tells kids to fight, to avoid complacency in the face of societal evils, and she tells them they can win. Her book is a warning to those who would sit silently and watch while nuclear power plants and arms spread across the globe. While the book may be depressing, the message is not: You can make a difference, but you have to do something now.
Three out of six dried sausages.
Where I got it: Hugendubel, Frankfurt, Germany
Where you can get it: Amazon is about the only place, unless you live in or near Germany, that is.