Germany after the First World War. Economic crisis. The ruined fates of people and their souls. As one of the heroes of the novel says, “we live in an era of despair.”
Three school and then front-line comrades – Robert Lockman, Gottfried Lenz, Otto Kester – work in a car repair shop. Robert was thirty. The birthday is always a bit sad and draws on memories. Before Robert there are paintings from his recent past: childhood, school, in 1916 he, eighteen, called, the soldiers’ barracks, Kester’s wound, the painful death of fellow soldiers from gas choking, from severe wounds. Then in 1919, Mr.. Putch. Arrested Kester and Lenz. Hunger. Inflation. After the war, Kester for a while was a student, then a pilot, a racer and finally bought an auto repair shop. Lenz and Lockman became his partners. Earnings are small, but one can live if “the past did not suddenly arise and the dead eyes were not stared.” For oblivion there is vodka.
Kester and Lenz solemnly greet Robert. Lenz gives the command to “stand up” and puts out gifts – somewhere miraculously mined six bottles of old rum. But the holiday – later, now – work.
Friends bought at auction an old wheelchair, which looked very amusing, equipped it with the most powerful motor of a racing car, called it “Karl” – the ghost of a highway. They work until dusk and, having rolled out the renovated Cadillac, decide on the “Carla” to go to the suburbs to celebrate the birthday. Their entertainment becomes the foolishness of the owners of expensive and luxurious cars, which they skip ahead, and then jester overtake. Stopping in the way, friends are going to order dinner, and then the Buick is overtaken, which they overtook. In it there was a passenger – Patricia Holman. Uniting, they make a merry feast.
After a tumultuous celebration, Robert returns to his den – furnished rooms. Here people live, for various reasons brought here by fate. Hasse’s husbands are always quarreling over money, Georg Blok is preparing hard for the institute, although the money accumulated during his work at the mine has long since ended and he is starving, Count Orlov is holding the past behind his throat – Robert saw him turn pale once in the noise of the congested machines – under this noise in Russia, his father was shot. But all of them can help each other: advice, kind attitude, money… Next to the guest house there is a cemetery and a cafe “International” nearby. Robert worked there for some time as a tamer.
Robert appoints Patricia-Pat’s meeting, as her friends called her. He waits for her at the cafe, sipping cognac. The cafe is crowded, and they decide to go to the bar. Robert tries to imagine who she is and how she lives. The host of the bar, Fred, greets them, and Robert begins to feel more confident. In the hall one is Valentin Gauser, an acquaintance. Robert on the front: he received an inheritance and now he drinks it. He is happy because he was alive. His motto: no matter how much you celebrate – everything is not enough. Robert explains that this is the only person who made a small happiness out of a great misfortune. He does not fit in with the conversation with Pat. In the end, rum does its job, unleashes the language. Robert escorts her home and on the way back observes that he is drunk. What did he say? Annoyed with himself for such a mistake, he returns to Fred and poured himself real – from grief.
The next day, on the advice of Lenz, “grandmaster in love affairs,” Robert sends Pat a bouquet of roses – without a single word, like an apology. Pat increasingly takes up Robert’s thoughts, makes you think about life. He remembers what they were when they returned from the war. “Young and devoid of faith, like miners from a collapsed mine. We wanted to fight against everything that determined our past – against lies and selfishness, self-interest and heartlessness, we became bitter and did not trust anyone except the closest comrades, did not believe in anything, except for those who never deceived us, like sky, tobacco, trees, bread and earth, but what happened? Everything collapsed, it was falsified and forgotten… The time of great human and courageous dreams passed. “. New meeting. Robert and Pat decide to ride around the city. Pat never drove a car, and in a quiet street Robert puts her behind the wheel. She learns to get moving, to turn, to stop, they feel so close, “as if they told each other the story of their whole life.” Then go to the bar. They meet there Lenz and together they go to the amusement park, where a new carousel and roller coaster are installed. Lenz is waiting for them, and now they are in the pavilion, where they throw plastic rings on hooks. For friends, this is a child’s play. In the army during the respite, they spent months killing time, throwing hats on all sorts of hooks. They win all the prizes from the alarm clock to the baby stroller. The second owner of the attraction all repeats. The third declares that it closes. Friends throw rings on bottles of wine and all are loaded into the stroller. The fans walk after them. They happily give out all the prizes, leaving themselves a wine and a frying pan for the workshop.
Comrades Robert accept Pat into their community. They take care of Robert’s feelings, because love is the only thing in this world, “everything else is... shit.”
Kester recorded “Karl” for the race, and all last week, friends until late at night, checked every cog, preparing “Karla” for the start. Theo advises to take care of his “Nutcracker”, and Lenz assures that “Karl” will ask him pepper. This cart is declared on the class of sports cars. Mechanics scoff at the debris. Lenz is furious and ready to engage in a fight, but Robert reassures him. Cars are racing along the highway. Everyone gathered – here and Pat. “Carl” left the start of the penultimate. Now he is the third. Lentz throws a stopwatch. Crack motors. Pat is delighted – Kester is the second! Before the finish, Theo had something to do with the motor, and Kester, the overtaking master at the corners, is only two meters ahead of him. Victory! Friends are going to kutnut, but barman Alphonse invites them to her for free food, and they honor it. Over dinner Pat is enjoying too much success, and Robert suggests that she disappears unnoticed. They sit for a long time on a cemetery bench, shrouded in mist. Then they go to Robert, Pat is happy about the heat in his room. She sleeps, laying her head on his arm. He begins to understand that he is loved. He knows how to “really be friends with men,” but he does not know why such a woman could love him.
There is no work, and friends decide to buy a taxi at the auction and earn money on it in turn. First you have to go on a flight to Robert. After a fight and a vodka treat, competitors become colleagues, and he is accepted into the ranks of taxi drivers, among them half of random people. One of them, Gustav, becomes his friend.
It’s the first time in Pat’s apartment. This is the former property of her family. Now Pat is only a tenant of two rooms, where everything is arranged with taste and reminds of past prosperity. Pat treats him with rum and talks about his life. About hunger, about the year spent in the hospital. There are no relatives left, money, too, and she is going to work as a seller of records. Robert is grieved and somewhat embarrassed: he does not want her to depend on anyone. But what can he do… Maybe his apartment owner, Frau Zadevski, who once saw Pat, said that she needs another man – a solid and well-off. It’s sad, if it turns out to be true…
Robert profitablely sells the renovated Cadillac to the successful businessman Blumenthal. Having received the check, he flew to the workshop with a swallow. Friends are dumbfounded by such commercial success. It is not often that they fall to their lot. After a successful deal, Robert takes a two-week vacation, and they go to the sea with Pat. On the way, they stop in the forest and lie on the grass. Pat regards the cuckoo screams and counts a hundred years. That’s how much she would like to live. Kester warned the hostess of the hotel, Fraulein Muller, who lived a year after the war, about their arrival. They are arranged and sent to the sea. Robert after an hour of sailing lies on the sand and gives reminiscences of how at the front during a short rest the soldiers just as lively in the sand without ammunition and weapons in the summer of 1917. Many of them were soon killed. In the evening walk on the Citroen. Pat suddenly feels weak and asks to go home. The next day, Pat discovered bleeding. Robert calls Kester, and friends find Dr. Jaffe, who treated Pat. Crazy race on the highway, at night, in places in a continuous fog. The doctor stays for a few days. In two weeks she can return home.
Jaffe introduces Robert to the history of Pat’s illness and insists on re-treatment in a sanatorium. He takes it with him to the detour and shows the sick. Many recover. Just do not show the Pat of your anxiety. To Pat did not miss, Robert brings her a wonderful thoroughbred puppy – it’s Gustav’s gift.
There are no passengers by taxi, and Gustav drags Robert to the races. Robert miraculously wins. Beginners are lucky, and this is very handy! “Carla” is preparing for new races, they go to roll it in the mountains. In their eyes, an accident occurs. They deliver the wounded to the hospital and agree on the repair of the crumpled machine. We have to beat the order of the four brothers, who also saw an accident. The eldest of them was already behind the murder. A fierce fight, but the brothers are defeated. In the workshop, they immediately begin repairs – so money is needed.
It became colder, and it rained continuously. Jaffe calls Robert and asks to immediately send Pat to the mountains. In the sanatorium he arranged with his friend about everything, and there they are waiting for her. In the mountains there is a blue sky, snow and sun. There are a lot of former patients on the train, they go again. Hence, they return from here. They stayed together for a week.
And at home new trouble. The owner of the car, which they barely beat off the brothers, went bankrupt, and the car with all the property was launched at a hammer. The car is not insured, so they will not get anything from the insurance company. The workshop will have to be sold. They have no other choice than to auction all the property.
Robert suppers in the “Internationale” and meets there all his friends.