There are some people who dominate the lives of others. Ludwig Kaltenburg is such a person. His tale is narrated by his protégé, Hermann Funk. Kaltenburg met Funk when the latter was a young boy in Posen in the 1930s. Kaltenburg is a noted ornithologist, and Funk’s parents share his interest if not his obsession. In the way of the memory of young boys, Funk remembers that Kaltenburg stops coming around but does not know why. His parents are killed in the bombing of Dresden, and Funk reconnects with Kaltenburg, who takes him under his wing. Funk becomes an ornithologist at Kaltenburg’s Dresden Institute, and while he seems less motivated to discover the secrets of birds than Kaltenburg is, he cannot envision any other path, so firm is his mentor’s hold on his life.
Funk’s narrative alternates between his memories of postwar Dresden and his youth and his later years, recounting tales of Kaltenburg to a young interpreter. Other characters – an artist, a documentarian, and Funk’s very serious wife – enter the story, each of them with more intensity than Funk has. This is the challenge of this book; its narrator seems to exist primarily to showcase Kaltenburg’s strengths and weaknesses, rather than be a character in his own right.
Kaltenburg is subject to academic jealousies at the Institute, and doubt is continually cast on his activities during the war, aided by his own obfuscation of his past. I had the sense I should have found that narrative thread more interesting than I did. Instead, I was fascinated by the ornithologist’s career: Kaltenburg’s obsession with birds, the menagerie he assembled, and the fragility of their lives. This is a beautifully written book, less an account of postwar East Germany than the story of people who have difficulty connecting with each other.