Set in 1364, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart follows the adventures of Manfried and Hegel Grossbart, two German grave robbers of dubious morals. They are as physically ugly as their dispositions and leave everyone worse for their passing. They have decided, these Grossbart Brothers, to journey to Gyptland where their grandfather allegedly disappeared while plundering the graves of Egypt’s kings.
In need of supplies for this great undertaking, Manfried and Hegel descend on the home of the turnip farmer Heinrich, who once injured both the Grossbarts when they were young. By page seven, the Brothers Grossbart have attacked Heinrich, murdered his wife and daughter with an ax, burned his two young children alive, and sliced the son’s throat.
This is but the beginning.
One quarter of the way through the novel, the I was hoping someone would come along and kill the Brothers, because I found them so vile. Eventually, I started giggling and glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one saw. Midway through the book, I realized that even should someone come along and kill the Brothers, the Grossbarts would be too stupid to comprehend the meaning of their deaths. Three quarters of the way through the tale, I felt as bludgeoned as one of the Grossbarts’ victims. At page 400, I rediscovered religion and started praying for the end.
That the Dragon didn’t stop reading is a testament to Bullington’s prose, which is as dark as a fairy tale and suits the overall grim mood of the Grossbart story. The journey through the mountains and the encounters with the witches and demons were excellent. Bullington’s characters were well rendered, but there is no humanity in this novel. The world Bullington shows us is so ugly, it’s practically a caricature.
Only in one scene does Bullington give us a brief glimpse into Hegel when the Grossbart kills a young girl, who is mourning another dead child in the street. In a barely perceptible flash, Hegel hesitates as if he regrets the action he must take. Yet he finishes his gruesome task and justifies it as the Virgin’s will.
Neither brother has the least difficulty justifying their acts of violence or hate in this amoral fable. Religion is mocked and manipulated by cardinal, serf, and noble; violence permeates every aspect of life; and no bodily fluids are sacred. The Brothers cruise through Europe wrecking havoc, yet they always emerge emotionally unscathed.
The Brothers’ ability to rationalize their every act to themselves is why I believe the ending wasn’t as satisfying to me as it could have been. There was no catharsis when I was done. However, when I evaluate Bullington’s tale, I’m hard put to find an alternative ending that would have been satisfying to me. Hence my ambivalence about the novel as a whole.
Bullington’s research is impeccable, and his pacing keeps the reader engaged. Be forewarned, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart lives up to the disclaimer on the back of the novel, which cautions that the book contains strong language and scenes of graphic violence. The fight scenes (and there are many) are extremely graphic, and the retching references become so numerous, they’re almost comical by the end.
So I will give my subjective rating; however, I would be most interested to hear what others may have to say about The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart.