The Turncoat: A Novel

Written by John Cullen (trans.) Siegfried Lenz
Review by Elisabeth Lenckos

1945. In a deadly primeval jungle, on the border to Byelorussia and Ukraine, at the farthest reaches of Eastern Europe, Walter Proska, a young recruit who enlisted in the German Wehrmacht at the final hour, is embroiled in the desperate effort to ward off the advancing Soviet troops. There is no traditional battlefield. Instead, Proska and his unit, a motley group of soldiers from different ethnic and social backgrounds, face a near-invisible enemy comprised of freedom fighters, boycotters, and snipers. After Proska falls in love with a female Polish partisan involved in a plot to blow up the train system used by the Germans, he defects and joins the Red Army. Proska fails to anticipate that he will be forced to fight, and even kill, his former comrades and innocent civilians. After the war’s end, when Proska works for the East German government, he must face the dreadful personal consequences of his fateful decision to change sides.

A historical novel by default, The Turncoat was written six years after the conclusion of World War II and published posthumously in 2016. The second work of fiction by Siegfried Lenz, an author who is extremely popular in his native country and studied in schools and universities, it caused an immense stir when it was released there and has been turned into a hit TV series. Lenz’s genius shows in placing a simple country boy, whose Polish-sounding name reveals the truth about the ethnic diversity of the so-called ‘German’ nation, at the heart of his novel. As Proska finds himself at the crossroads between duty and conscience, his struggle encapsulates that of the German everyman in Hitler’s Germany at the point of no return. Highly recommended, The Turncoat is poised to become a global literary classic.