Ledig, Gert translated by Hofmann, Michael
Original German edition 1955, NYRB edition 2015
Set on the Eastern Front of WWII, this relatively short novel about a minor battle is written with such human insight that it nearly becomes a dark comedy. Far from the iron soldiers of propaganda, the cast of characters encountered in the book are clearly human, and the book plays masterfully with the conflict of humanity and war.
As an example, 3 soldiers are stationed in a dugout on a hill. Their orders are essentially suicidal; should Russian tanks approach their area they are to run out and plant bombs underneath them. For days they sit in their isolated post, yet when Russian tanks do come, and park only a few feet from the entrance, two of the men consider it too risky to set off a bomb so near their dugout. The third sees a chance to finally do his duty and perhaps even survive it, and begins to climb out with his bomb. The two others grab his feet to hold him back, but he has advanced far enough out that he is spotted by the Russians in the tank, and while he is fighting with the others to let him go, the tank crew shoots their flame thrower down the dugout entrance – killing the German soldiers, but also setting off the stored bombs and blowing themselves up in the process.