Its 18 chapters are organized well, into the different roles Gönner played throughout his life, a table of contents that reads like a John le Carré collage: teacher, traitor, soldier, ghost, etc. Attending an intriguingly theatrical group-therapy session in Berlin “to help us make peace with our dead,” Bilger is requested by an adult child of war refugees to take on a role. “Will you be my father?” the new acquaintance asks.
When he died in 1979, at 80, Gönner was heralded as a beloved educator. As a grandparent, he had appeared solemn and remote to the young Burkhard during family visits to Germany, with “a glass eye that would swivel unnervingly out of line as he spoke” (having lost the original to shrapnel while a teenager in combat during the First World War).
“He would ask me questions in a grave, deliberate voice, like an astronaut meeting a Martian,” Bilger writes, “and sometimes give me a piece of beeswax with honey to chew — strange, like him, with its chambered secrets, its amber depths, but also sweet.”
The concomitant stickiness and sting were left mostly unexamined until 2005, when Bilger’s mother, Edeltraut, a historian, received a parcel of old letters from an aunt: irresistible primary documents inviting closer scrutiny of Gönner’s moral character. Edeltraut would be her son’s most important collaborator — inverting that word’s negative wartime charge — with heroic investigative feats like translating from childhood memory an archaic, loopy Prussian script, through the cloud of glaucoma. Outlawing that cursive, she joked darkly, “may be the only good thing that Hitler ever did.”
Even with these closest of family connections, the reconstruction of Gönner’s life required plenty of archive-diving and interviews conducted in the language Bilger rhapsodizes over as thick with “forest and soil, full of wind and weather and earthly rumblings. Its umlauts and throaty consonants are its horns and woodwinds.” (This is surely one of the kindest descriptions of German ever put between covers.) His subject matter is sensitive, but his sensuality remains intact; you can almost taste the schnitzel he is served by one set of sources, followed by “the huge pie that seems to contain every fruit in their garden,” and you can feel the spongy, springy moss underfoot as he tramps into the woods.