The New York Sun
Review of Nothing in Sight by Jens Rehn.
The closest we have to an iron law of war stories is that no story involving a U-boat ends happily. The combination of Nazis, bleak seas, and torpedoes leaves little room for hope and optimism, and the last of characters’ dignity usually gets washed away in the end, when they choke to death on salt water. It is no mean testament to the relentless gloom of Jens Rehn’s “Nothing in Sight” (University of Chicago Press, 144 pages, $20) to say that it distinguishes itself among U-boat stories as a particularly grim read.
Rehn’s novel, released in German in 1954 and published in English for the first time this year, won respectful reviews in Europe on its first appearance. The author, who served as an officer in Hitler’s navy, published a few other books, worked as a radio producer in West Germany, and died in 1983 without matching the deserved success of this, his first novel.
It is surely one of the sparest and least comforting fictions to emerge from World War II. The novel’s beginning stinks of gangrene, the fragrance of slow human rot lingers over the middle, and by the end, the reader and the surviving character cannot help but welcome death as a friend.
The initial conceit – placing enemies together in a boat – smacks of gimmickry, a cheap contrivance to demonstrate the men’s shared humanity and essential sameness. “Nothing in Sight” is indifferent to these overripe platitudes. It is not that it rejects them; its cynicism is so profound as to ignore them completely.
A German seaman and an American airman, the latter with an arm freshly ripped off, are stranded together in a lifeboat. At the end of the first chapter, the putrid stump of the American’s arm has killed him by septic shock, and the “other man”(as he is called throughout, denied even a name) is mad with thirst. The German chats with the corpse and hallucinates. Eighty grueling pages later, the German, too, is dead.
Other common tropes of castaway narratives appear, again only to be ignored. We get an inventory of possessions (a whiskey bottle, matches and smokes, chewing gum, chocolate bars), which in the venerable tradition of Robinson Crusoe and MacGyver might be put to ingenious use to stave off death. But the characters drink the whiskey, smoke the smokes, chew the gum, and eat the chocolate. The running tally of leftover cigarettes and candy bars gives a rough idea of how much time the castaways have left.
The German’s final hours find him alone and delirious, persecuted to the end by a merciless God. He senses a sadistic divinity, “the Great I Am,” clutching his heart and depriving him of comfort to the last. “Nothing in Sight” offers not the slightest concession to humanity or redemption, only a series of contemplations of life and love that fail to provide the men the meaning they seek.
Now that roadside bombs and Predator drones do a great deal of our killing for us, it is difficult to imagine a modern war story as philosophically or existentially enthralled as Rehn’s. Surely it is for the best that the technology of war has relieved us of protracted deaths. But it is startling to see what spiritual shock combat could inspire just 50 years ago.
“Nothing in Sight” also prompts curiosity at what type of literature modern war will produce, given the relative comforts of today’s military life. The closest recent analogue to Rehn’s apolitical, contemplative war novel is Terrence Malick’s rendition of “The Thin Red Line” (1998), whose thick slathering of Emerson left it, like its characters and Rehn’s, too spellbound by man’s attitude to nature to explore man’s attitude to man. Where Emerson was reverential and exuberant about nature, however, “Nothing in Sight” is darkly pessimistic. The morbidity demands an explanation: Observing men’s lurid death throes does not in itself edify, and there is much to lament in any novel that treats its characters as morally inert.
William Golding’s “Pincher Martin,” published just two years later, also featured a seaman adrift reckoning with mortality and covered much of the same material with greater nuance. But Rehn’s novel, doggedly thoughtful and admirably willing to follow its nihilism to a ghastly conclusion, is nothing if not faithful to itself. This uncompromising attitude is fundamental to all great novels of ideas, and it is regrettable that, after showing such potential, Rehn died without producing a truly great novel of his own.