The novel is set just after World War Two, in a fictitious Germany. The Allies have decided to punish the country for Nazi war crimes by forcing it to develop back in to a pre-industrial society. All the achievements of technology - railways, streets, power, ships - have been destroyed or suspended, and in the village where The Kitahara Syndrome is set, villagers are forced to farm the land with primative tools and scavenge scrap yards. Memories of German war crimes are kept alive by bizarre rituals of remembrance: villagers are forced to dress as concentration camp inmates and act out the ceremonies of torture. This is the background to the story which focuses on three characters and the strange links that bind them.
American audiences may react to this highly stylized German novel the way they often react to a foreign film: impressed but puzzled. At times fierce and hallucinatory, at other times ponderous and cold, this look at post-WWII Germany presents a world where peacetime brings no relief from suffering and struggle, nor from the hovering, obliquely addressed shadow of the Holocaust. In the small town of Moor, which had harbored a concentration camp, Bering, the son of a blacksmith, has inherited his father's ability with machines, a skill much in demand due to the wreckage caused by Allied bombings and victorious marching armies. But after his mother succumbs to religious superstition, Bering leaves his family to live with the mysterious Ambras, aka the Dog King, who resides in an abandoned villa with a battalion of half-crazed hounds. Along with Lily, a young woman adept at weaponry and black marketeering, Bering and Ambras attempt to carve a life for themselves and, eventually, to leave Germany altogether. Bering suffers from an eye disease that causes his vision to darken gradually. Ransmayr's treatment of this element is emblematic of the book as a whole: it clearly bears allegorical intent, but the meaning remains murky. How complicit were the villagers in the killings that took place at the camp? Ably translated by Woods, this novel paints a convincing postapocalyptic world sent back into a nearly pre-civilized state. But Ransmayr (The Terrors of Ice and Darkness), though clearly probing the question of how Germany is to view itself in the wake of the Holocaust and WWII, never pulls his story out of his dark, expressionist atmospherics into the clear light of an answer.