Gehen, ging, gegangen- Go, went, went by Jenny Erpenbeck.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel, now available in English translation by Susan Bernofsky, explores the plight of refugees in Germany today. Told Gehen, ging, gegangenfrom the point of view of Richard, a retired academic, who befriends a group of refugees, the novel relates their individual stories as well as detailing the innumerable legal and bureaucratic hurdles they face. At the same time, the novel is an account of Richard’s own development through contact with men very different from himself. And while this novel is not historical in the sense of Erpenbeck’s previous book, Aller Tage Abend, Richard’s own personal history as an East Berliner lends an ever present and for me, intriguing, shading to the narrative.

The story begins when Richard walks past a group of men protesting on Alexanderplatz by going on hunger strike. They are protesting because they wish to remain in Germany and to support themselves by working. Later that evening Richard sees the hunger strike reported on the TV news and realises he walked straight past the protest without really noticing, absorbed as he was in his thoughts about the history of the cellars beneath the Rotes Rathaus. It comes as no surprise to the reader that the kerfuffle on the square passes him by: he’s an academic, preoccupied with abstract ideas and the maintenance of order in his household. Though we learn early on that there was once both a wife and a lover, there is a sense of relief that he now lives alone and can cut up onions for his dinner in the correct manner.

Richard begins reading about the refugees in Berlin and discovers he is appallingly ignorant about the countries they come from. He doesn’t know where Burkina Faso is or that there are 54 countries in the continent of Africa. In his typically thorough/ borderline obsessional manner, he devises a questionnaire asking about origin, parents, method of travelling to Europe, and when he learns that a group of refugees will be moved into a former old people’s home in his Berlin suburb, he sets off to interview them.

The refugees’ stories are told through the interviews with Richard, but through other more casual, less scripted encounters as well. I understand from an article in The Skinny that Jenny Erpenbeck herself met and befriended several of the refugees whose stories are told here and it’s a testament to her narrative skills that she tells their stories in a few broad deft brush strokes which give them a unique and memorable resonance. So Apollo is from the Tuareg people and once orphaned he worked for a family of Tuareg herders, whose children were taught their letters in the sand, while he, a slave, had to milk the camels. Still, he speaks Tamasheq, the Tuareg language,  and understands Hausa, Arabic, French and German. There is Awad, whom Richard calls Tristan, born in Ghana, brought up by his father alone in Libya, he lost his father in a shooting, crossed to Sicily, where he spent 9 months in a camp and was then on the street. We meet Raschid from Niger whose father was burnt alive in a car and his house then burnt down whereupon he fled to Libya. There, he endured an atmosphere of arrests and killings, followed by the further chaos and destruction of the Allied bombings and a crossing to Europe in which 550 people out of 800 died.

Richard’s visits to the refugees are interleaved with encounters with his own friends, largely retired East Berliners around his own age, which bring out some interesting parallels and differences between the two communities. We are told with a light touch what has happened to the Berliners since the ‘so called reunification’ and there are some ironic comparisons drawn between the freedom to travel for leisure brought about by reunification and the need to flee to escape conflict experienced by the refugees. On All Souls’ Day, Richard feels fortunate that he can visit the grave of two generations of his family, when many of the refugees don’t know if their family members are alive or where they are buried. Yet his study of German Märchen- fairy tales- tells him that travelling, being on the move, was a feature of life in Germany only a few generations ago. And his awareness of his own traumatic early childhood in the midst of war and atrocities carried out by the Nazis are very near the surface of his consciousness- conflict is hovering around on the edges of his past as well.

Now, though I agree with Eileen Battersby in her Guardian review that the novel does not have the ‘stylistic bravura’ of Visitation, it does contain some powerful visual images which reminded me of The End of Days: the stack of chairs in the school which flood Richard’s mind with memories of schooldays in the now disappeared DDR,  Karon looking at his family photo with the snow falling outside- the reverse of the snowstorm in a glass sphere, the police lined up to confront the 12 refugees who refuse to leave the home, forming another Grenze or border. Yet the strength of the writing in this novel is in my view its versatility- and here I’d like to refer again to Annie Rutherford’s article in The Skinny which categorises it as somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. The novel contains throughout precise details of the legal status of the refugees and the different pieces of legislation, such as the Dublin Agreement, which determine their status and where they can live. The lay person with perhaps only a vague notion about the exact rights of refugees in Germany will learn a lot through reading this book, over and above the human stories.

Finally, the novel does have a positive ending of sorts when many refugees, made homeless through the application of the Dublin Agreement, are offered accommodation by the East Berliners, who open their doors as well as their hearts to fit them all in. So this is a coming together of communities, a generosity, an understanding on a personal, human level which runs counter to the cold formulaic responses of the authorities. This does not of course offer any satisfactory long term solution to the refugees’ plight but is at least a demonstration that their situation can be relieved through the warm engagement of fellow human beings.

It is perhaps the hybridity of this novel- factual yet fiction- which makes it such a compelling read. The accounts of the harrowing experiences of the refugees could come across as a series of separate accounts, yet they are placed within a narrative arc of the story of their application to remain in Germany which takes the narrative forward. The incremental engagement of Richard in their lives through which he opens up emotionally holds our interest and both these against a beautifully evoked and melancholic backdrop of a Berlin autumn turning into winter. The image too of the body of the drowned man in the lake near Richard’s home illustrates the situation of the refugees, suspended,  not grounded in the country. It also reflects the different levels of individual consciousness apparent in Richard’s personal story, but also the layers of history which lie beneath. And this is surely a commonality between the refugees and the history of their people and the history of Richard and East Berlin. This is a beautifully written, moving and thought provoking novel for our times. Do read it.

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Die Koenigin schweigt- The Queen is silent- by Laura Freudenthaler

This moving debut novel by the Austrian writer Laura Freudenthaler describes the life of the elderly and ailing Fanny, through her memories, conversations and stories she has told over years to her granddaughter. The vivid depiction of people and situations gives us a picture not only of Fanny’s life but of a rural community in Austria from the 1930s, together with their customs and values. This is a community of minimal conversation, of things unsaid and through the novel the theme of speech and silence is skilfully explored. And the narrative perspective is that of a woman, Fanny: it is very much a woman’s life and experience which is described and which made the book for me so compelling.

The novel starts in the present, with Fanny’s slow morning meticulously described: the fetching of the newspaper, the discovery of an earwig on her doorstep segueing into a story she told her granddaughter, the gazing out over her garden, remembering the redcurrant bushes that used to grow in the corner. We are taken back to memories of her early childhood on the farm, sensual memories of smells and touch under the bench in the farm  kitchen, of her father’s hard unyielding chest as she climbs onto his knee, and through these vignettes the characters of her father, mother and brother Toni emerge, the father a  stern, proud, silent man commanding respect in the village, whose moods and preferences the little girl learns to read  and respond to.

Her early life in particular is impressionistic, a series of images and recollections related in a simple narrative style: when she meets her future husband, the school master, their attraction is evoked in descriptions of their looks, their enjoyment of dancing, her awareness of his eyes on her. Fanny’s married life is depicted in a series of scenes which show her continuing life rooted firmly in the village milieu. As the wife of the schoolmaster she starts cooking school meals for the village children. At the same time she is helping her parents on a daily basis on their farm – her physical dashing between the two households involve her negotiating the two different worlds of the farm and the bookish politicking of her husband, in a typically placatory female manner. As well as hard work, the village enjoys festivals such as Fasching and the details of the dressing up and costumes for the festival are beautifully described.  However the darker side of rural life is shown too, with  indebtedness and its consequences, including the loss of the family farm. And for Fanny, there is isolation: for all her busyness by day, she is alone most evenings as her husband, like most village men, spends his evenings drinking in the Wirtshaus.

Later on Fanny moves to a small town and is bringing up her son, also called Toni, alone. She wishes to leave the life of the village with its painful memories behind her and is astonished when she discovers that Toni has returned there to see old friends. She is reluctant to talk about or acknowledge the past with Toni and this is part of their growing apart as Toni reaches puberty which is so sensitively and painfully evoked. The Kleinstadt– small town- does offer Fanny more opportunities however, and, now widowed, she finds work as a housekeeper to the Head Forester, a widow himself. This is the first of several relationships with men which Fanny encounters as a middle aged woman and the pleasures and complications that these bring are well described.

Another new development in Fanny’s life at this time is the Frauenrunde, a regular meeting of local women in a cafe where they discuss their daily lives and problems frankly and openly and often end up laughing uproariously at their menfolk. Fanny is initially shocked at the frankness of the other women: in the village she had become aware of two realities, the front you showed to the world, and then the hidden reality, gossiped about in whispers behind closed doors. In the Kleinstadt it seems as if the other women are prepared to talk about anything and everything, though Fanny herself refuses to be drawn on her personal life. Their ready talk is to some extent emblematic of a more modern age which Fanny refuses to accept: this is seen too in her distaste for the friendly lack of formality shown her by Toni’s girlfriend and her rejection of modern expressions like ‘pregnant’ rather than the euphemistic ‘to be expecting’. Yet it is also indicative of Fanny’s reluctance to engage with complex feelings, whether it be her own reactions to past tragedy or to face emotionally complex issues in the present, such as her distant relationship with her son and her relationships with older men.

The novel does take us back and forth between past and present, at times in dreams cleverly confounding the two, but finally bringing us back to Fanny as an old lady surviving with the help and support of her granddaughter and Hanna, an old friend from the past. Her granddaughter has left a notebook by her bed for her to write down her reminiscences. The pages remain empty. The granddaughter goes abroad and sends the occasional postcard. Hanna remains there for Fanny to the end.

So in creating a whole arc of a life the novel is reminiscent of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, yet Die Königin schweigt is for me quite distinctive. At a simple level, the novel is about a woman and it is a woman’s voice we hear. The novelist is at her best when using her observant eye to describe moments of women’s experience-peeling potatoes with her mother, admiring dress fabric with the shop assistant at the drapers’. But is is also the disingenuously simple prose and anecdotal style which is so cleverly employed to build up a picture of Fanny’s life, the satisfactions and the tragedies, the things said and those unsaid. This is a skillful and touching account of a woman’s life and a remarkable tour de force from such a young writer. I read the novel in German but let’s hope there will be an English translation soon.  I look forward to reading more of her.

 

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The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich- A polyphony of voices.

In this extraordinary book, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Svetlana Alexievich gives voice to women from all parts of the former Soviet Union who fought on the Soviet side in the Second World War. Travelling over several years, nurturing relationships, filling innumerable cassettes, she finds the women desperate to talk to her. Many have been silent for forty years during which their experiences have been denied, silenced and sidelined in favour of a more glorious war narrative from officialdom and in some cases, their own husbands. But it is the small details remembered by the women-of trauma, suffering, but also of tenderness and love which interest Alexievich and give this account its uniquely female perspective.

So what motivated these young women to volunteer at 16, 17 years of age, to throw themselves into the world of war for which they were stunningly unprepared? Most report a rush of patriotism, an unstoppable desire to fight for the Motherland- and we should remember that after the invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany in June 1941 they were fighting for survival. Girls lied about their age in order to go to the front- we know that boys in both Britain and Germany did this in World War One- and there is frequent mention of fathers marching their daughters proudly to enlist, while their mothers wept and keened at home. Despite attempts by officers to protect these ‘Thumbelinas’, to keep them away from the front, there are many accounts of the girls insisting, manipulating and dissembling in order to take on the most dangerous of roles-snipers, artillery commanders, technicians, tank drivers, fighter pilots- where they looked death in the face each day and killed themselves. There are stories of great courage but also of the horrors they witnessed which are at times hard to read and to grasp that these things were seen by such young girls.

As well as the horrors of the battlefield the women were beset by the miseries of everyday life in an army which was not equipped for them. There are several descriptions of the difficulty of marching in boots several sizes too big, of the discomfort of wearing a huge man’s overcoat, of weeping at having to cut off  their braids, so beloved by their mothers. They had no rags for menstruation and would be marching with their menstrual blood trickling down their legs -though hats off to the women who pinched the men’s shirts laid out to dry on bushes and ripped them up for rags! They were ridden with lice like the men, yet undressing and washing to get rid of them was embarrassing in front of male comrades. One woman said the worst thing about the war for her was the fact that she had to wear men’s underpants for the duration. And these very young women longed and yearned for their homes and families: in one account they lined up to smell the girl who’d returned from leave because she smelt of home.

Yet despite the rough brutality of everyday life the women found ways to keep something of themselves, their identity and femininity: one woman still has her high-heeled shoes on when transporting the wounded out of Minsk, another recalls going into a shop in the retreat from Voronezh to buy a pair of shoes,’ such elegant little shoes, I remember as if it were today….I also bought some perfume’. When reaching Germany, a woman reports being billeted in a castle where beautiful dresses hung in the wardrobes, ‘each girl chose a dress for herself. There was a yellow one that I liked , and also a house robe. I can’t tell you what a beautiful house robe it was- long, light…..like a fluff of down!’ And there was Colonel Ptitsyn who somehow understood ‘our woman’s soul’- when they got to Moscow he brought them a hairdresser to dye their eyebrows and eyelashes, to curl their hair.

Love and tenderness existed together with barbarity and this is emphasised by Alexievich’s selection and juxtaposition of her reports. We have the partisan coming across the hacked remains of her comrades, brutally slaughtered by the Germans in front of their horses. But next the nurse remembers the badly burned tank driver who asked her to see to the German first because  ‘he’s in a bad way’. She observes ‘they were no longer enemies but people, simply two wounded men lying next to each other’. And the beautiful description of the nurses coming upon the school building full of wounded soldiers who they then made ready for transportation, each choosing one man to prepare for the road and murmuring over him ” My dear little son!” ” There, my dearest!”, “There, my pretty one!”, bringing him a bit of home- cooked food and wrapping him in their ‘homey things’.

And romantic love was also present. There were tales of the women soldiers who slept with men for their own protection, of relationships forged on the battlefield and marriages taking place at the end of the war. But also the touching story of the field campaign wife who fell deeply in love with the officer she had an affair with through the war, knowing he would return to his wife and children at the end. Which is what he did, leaving her just his photograph and never contacting her again, despite the fact that she bore his child. Yet she had no regrets, ‘I’m grateful to him for the feeling he gave me, and that I had known with him. I’ve loved him all my life…’

On the whole the women were treated with respect, consideration, admiration by their male soldier colleagues during the war. Yet that was not necessarily the case afterwards when more traditional gender roles were restored- one account has a woman who has been courted and flirted with at a social gathering being dumped when the man discovers she was at the front. Another recounts other women turning against women returning, accusing them of whoring at the front. There are accounts of women who’d been at the front remaining unmarried, living in collective dormitory accommodation for decades. At the same time the women are struggling with the after effects of trauma: one says she can’t stand the colour red, forever associated with blood, another cannot go to Moscow market because of the amputees working there, scooting themselves along with their hands on little platforms with wheels- if they still have hands. Some women have been physically maimed and some complain of enduring pain and neurological symptoms which only came on after the war.

And women whose husbands had been prisoners of war in Germany suffered untold misery when their husbands returned and were punished again by being immediately arrested and sent to labour camps in Siberia.( This was terrible for the men too of course). Alexievitch explains that they posed a threat to the Soviet way of thinking because they had tasted capitalist society and its freedoms. The consequence for women and families was not only the absence of their menfolk but also ignominy and loss of status if others discovered why the men were absent. One woman in this position who had been a teacher before the war says she was refused a job as a school cleaner and ended up working on a building site. So much for offering up your life for the Motherland.

I found this book compelling on many levels. The individual women’s voices give us an experience of war which is different from the male narrative: more focused on feelings, on details of everyday life, ‘ a lock left on the forehead once the braid is cut; the hot kettle of kasha and soup’, rather than a glorious narrative of action and strategy. The accounts of their struggle to live as women during the war, with their periods, their longing for their mothers, enables the female reader to identify with them and be invited into their intimate, private sphere. Yet in other accounts we see women who are as courageous and competent in the public sphere as men, women who are fighter pilots and tank drivers and I found myself both astonished and humbled by their courage. Svetlana Alexievich’s project gives voice to those brave Soviet women and broadens our understanding of what women can and did endure in war. If you are interested in women in history you should read this book.

 

 

 

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Die Mittagsfrau-The Blind Side of the Heart by Julia Franck- translated by Anthea Bell.

As little Peter is woken up by a ray of sunshine falling across his bed, to the morning call of seagulls and his neighbour singing softly, we are drawn into the intimacy of his world in a town near the Baltic at the end of World War Two. Hard on the heels of this opening comes the reality of those post war days, seen through Peter’s eyes- the chaos at school, his absent mother working long shifts as a nurse, and the Russians all over the building, drunken, violent, present in Peter’s flat when he comes back from school. At last they hear that there will be a train, that they can leave, and Peter and his mother are at the station with crowds of others desperate to head west. His mother sits him down, tells him to wait and goes off to get tickets. She never returns.

This is the devastating opening of die Mittagsfrau by Julia Franck which won the German Book Prize in 2007 and was published in English as The Blind Side of the Heart, translated by Anthea Bell. Rereading the book in English for Women in Translation Month, I’ve been struck by the force of the female perspective in the novel. The rest of the book is an attempt to explain the abandonment, to explain how any mother could be induced to abandon her child in this way and goes back to the story of Helene, Peter’s mother. Born into the middle class Würsich family, she is neglected and unloved by her mother Selma, forever mourning her four preferred boy babies who were still born. Selma’s maternal neglect is compounded by her increasing mental health problems and her vicious treatment of Helene in particular is cruel indeed. Her father is kindly but, wrapped up in adoration and concern for his beautiful but ailing wife, seems ineffectual. Neither parent considers education important for a girl and Helene, though very bright, is not allowed to study. Her rock and mainstay throughout childhood is her older sister, Marthe, and this strong female sibling bond is a theme throughout the novel.

On the death of their father, seriously wounded in World War One, Helene and her older sister, Marthe, leave their small town milieu in Bautzen for Berlin where their Aunt Fanny puts them up. Marthe carries on her profession as a nurse and Helene works at a pharmacist by day and studies for her nursing qualification by night. In fact she wants to study medicine, but she’s discouraged not only by her parents but by her male doctor boss in Bautzen who prefers to keep her as his assistant, rather than have her elevated to a position of professional parity.  So on the one hand this is a milieu where women work and are not necessarily dependent on fathers or husbands- but a working world in which gender roles are very definitely circumscribed.

The novel portrays a vibrant picture of Berlin in the years leading up to the war. Aunt Fanny runs a sort of salon where artists and bohemians come together. New ideas are discussed, there is wild dancing, drinking and regular supplies of  heroine and cocaine. Same sex relationships and multiple partners are permitted but the underbelly of this permissiveness is that it leaves the door wide open for male predators: Helene is constantly fending off the unwanted attentions of Aunt Fanny’s male friends. Still, she does meet and fall in love with Carl Wertheimer, their love a shared passion for poetry and philosophy as well as a physical attraction. And his Jewishness of no import in this milieu- in contrast to the Bautzen community whose shopkeepers treat Selma Würsich, also Jewish, well before the 30s, with unhelpfulness and quiet disdain. Interestingly, there is barely a mention of the growing menace of National Socialism, as if the circle around Aunt Fanny are so caught up in their pleasure seeking that they don’t see the writing on the wall. It is relatively late in the day that Helene and Martha feel antisemitism closing in on them and Helene, numbed by loss, marries Wilhelm, an engineer, for protection.

The marriage is horribly abusive: Helene is forced to stay at home and is physically beaten. By the time she gives birth to Peter, Wilhelm has left her and she is bringing Peter up as a single parent. She returns to work, her nursing skills much needed and ever more so as the war progresses. As her shifts grow longer and longer Peter is left alone and in precarious care. Now and then Helene longs to spend more time with him, to read him a story, but mostly the demands of her work take her over, allow her to lose herself and her own pain, not to think, just to do, to remove shrapnel, to bandage, to comfort the dying, to wash the dead. In the end, she is showing Peter the ‘blind side of the heart’, as her mother did to her and we can understand better her act of abandonment, convinced that anywhere he would end up would be better than with her given the inadequacy of her love.

This  sad story is based on an event in Julia Franck’s own family life: she related in an interview with Zeit Online that her father was abandoned by his mother at a station in 1945 west of the Oder-Neiße Line, though she didn’t know the rest of the story, just that it had marked him deeply. When she tried to find out more about her grandmother years later after becoming a mother herself, she discovered that she’d died in 1996 near Berlin where she’d been living for decades in a small flat with her sister. She never mentioned a child. So the book was a way of giving her grandmother a story.

I was also interested in her comments on the title which I’ve been wondering about ever since reading the German when the book was first published. She says that gender determines how we interpret the title-men seeing the German title die Mittagsfrau– the midday woman- as a lover who they see at lunchtime, women seeing her as a housewife getting lunch for her kids! Both those ideas had gone through my mind- though cynical me had seen her as a sex worker rather than a lover. In fact, says Julia Franck, the title comes from a legend where the Mittagsfrau appears at midday, puts a curse on people which can only be lifted if they speak for an hour on the weaving of flax. The hour’s talking is itself a creation, a weaving of a structure- the legend showing us therefore how necessary speech is for survival. And Helene becomes more and more silent towards the end of the book- though it was her emotional detachment which struck me more.

Despite the aching sadness of the frame story, this book has much to enjoy -the characterisation of the two sisters and their relationship, the social contexts of both small town Bautzen and bohemian Berlin, the moving depiction of first love. Anthea Bell’s translation soars when she is depicting scenes of emotional intensity- the exhilaration of nightclub dancing, Helene’s first night with Carl, her fear on discovering the abandoned railway carriage in the wood at the end of the war. I recommend this book, whether in the original German or in translation to any reader interested in 20th century Germany. And particularly to those interested in a woman’s story.

 

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Ralf Rothmann- Im Fruehling sterben- translated by Shaun Whiteside as To die in Spring.

With memorial services marking the First World War’s battle of Passchendaele and the release of Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk, the horrific and senseless loss of life in war has been playing on my mind.  So it seemed timely to turn to Ralf Rothmann’s latest novel Im Frühling sterben, set in Germany at the end of World War Two, and now appearing in an English translation by Shaun Whiteside. I’m a great fan of Ralf Rothmann since reading his novel Junges Licht. Im Frühling sterben is as compelling a read as the earlier novel but very much a war novel, telling the story of Walter Urban, a 17 year old farm hand from North Germany, dragooned into volunteering for the Waffen SS with his friend Fiete only months before Germany’s defeat.

The story starts with his life on the farm. He is coming to the end of his training and there is a feeling of contentment, quiet confidence and ease in his sensitive handling of the animals. He has cordial relations with his boss and fellow workers, including the refugee families from the East who have found temporary shelter on the farm and begins a flirtation with young Liesel. At the same time, the war in its final stages is in the background: the farm has suffered bomb damage, the Russians are at the River Oder and there is an unspoken awareness that the end, and probable defeat, will come soon. A party is held one night by the Reichsnährstand, a kind of Food Committee, to which the Waffen SS turn up. Bragging about their heroic deeds for the Fatherland and puffed up with empty rhetoric about the Endsieg– final victory- it becomes clear that they are out to sign up new recruits. Walter and his friend Fiete find themselves forced to ‘volunteer’ and within hours are on their way to the front.

Walter goes first to Adelsried in Bavaria and then into Hungary. He learns to drive, which saves him from certain death at the front, and is engaged in driving provisions to the front and transporting the wounded back to the field hospital. The narrative offers us many accounts of carnage and destruction and Rothmann’s descriptive powers convey the physical and sensual impact of these on the young 17 year old : in the kitchen and canteen at Adelsried the stench of blood, pus and urine overrides the smell of cooking fat or ersatz coffee. Alongside heartrending accounts of individual suffering and death, Rothmann gives us the bigger picture, well documented elsewhere, of an army on its knees, sent back again and again to the front, when the Russian air superiority was obvious, the Germans had only one quarter of their men on the ground and the troops were so hungry that they would raid the kit bags of fallen Russian soldiers and eat their bloodied provisions.

In this way the narrative weaves a more generalised account of the suffering and pointlessness of war together with an account of events that happened at this particular moment in history. So on the one hand, the treatment of the miller, his wife and servant, seems to be the expression of a ghastly sadistic streak in the perpetrators. Yet the activities of the Waffen SS as a group range from lawless to unspeakably cruel. We have the young Ernst at the call up scene remarking in throw away fashion that they had to decimate villages of civilians in reprisals for partisans attacking their men- was this Tulle? Oradour-sur-Glane? or the Balkans? They are seen by many as an elite troop who are a law unto themselves and the several dangling bodies of deserters seen by Walter testify to the fact that they take no prisoners. And give a forewarning of what is to come in the story, an event which is to traumatise Walter for the rest of his life.

Walter survives the war though spends the last days in a field hospital, sick with his nerves. Many of his friends and comrades have died. He returns to Essen, his home town, to see his mother and sister. Though he has an affectionate relationship with his sister, his mother has no time for him so he heads north to track down Liesel- he’s been offered a job on a farm but it’s for a couple and he needs a wife.

Now you might think readers are left crossing their fingers that Walter and Liesel can make something of their lives after this traumatic period of their youth. But we already know how their lives pan out because of the frame around Walter’s story, narrated by the first person narrator/ Ralf Rothmann. The  frame, and the novel, starts with the word Schweigen– silence- and introduces the narrator’s father. He is a silent, serious, melancholy man, who rarely smiles. We are told that his life is darkened by his past and he only mentions the war when telling his children his wiry hair resulted from the birch sap rubbed into it at the front. The epilogue wraps around the story from the other end and has the narrator visiting his parents’ graves one last time before they are given up to make room for the more recent dead. He stumbles through the snow, unable to find the grave, just as Walter was unable to  find his father’s grave when searching for it at the front, knowing he had fallen close by.

This novel about war and its terrible impact on young lives covers some similar ground to novels like All Quiet on the Western Front. Yet the framing device, letting us know from the beginning that Walter, the narrator’s father, is a damaged man, gives us a sense of the permanence of that damage- and the mirroring of the father and son both searching in vain for their father’s final resting place leaves us with a sense of loss going across generations. This is a powerful story, rendered more so by Rothmann’s meticulously detailed description of the youth of the protagonists- the young soldiers’s soft skin, their eyelashes- and it may make you weep for their loss. Read it, but be prepared.

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Human Acts- Han Kang translated by Deborah Smith

This novel is an account of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea and the massacre and repression which followed. Told from different points of view, the accounts are pieced together like a mosaic and tell us of those who died and those who survived- and the price they paid. The novel starts in the gymnasium where the small and slight middle schooler Dong-Ho has come to look for his friends Jeong- Dae and his sister Jeong- Mi. The gymnasium is the place where the bodies are brought from the hospital and laid out in coffins, some covered, some open, for families to identify. The bodies are swollen, already putrefying, many disfigured and maimed from blows and slashes.The stench is overwhelming. I was reminded of Nina Jäckle’s book der lange Atem where bodies are bloated and distended, hard to identify. There it’s the Tsunami which has caused such damage, whereas here it is humankind which has maimed, shot, crushed and tortured these mostly very young people in a brutal response by the state to their demands for freedom and democracy.

The novel goes on to explore the stories of other characters introduced in that first story while always keeping our awareness on the body. So the next section is narrated by a soul hovering around his physical body, which finds itself at the bottom of a pile of bodies ‘stacked in the neat shape of a cross’ after being dumped in the countryside. We learn that this is Jeong-Dae also seeking his sister amongst the bodies and the souls and how he died. Kim Eun-sook, an older student whom Dong-Ho meets working at the gymnasium, later works for a small publishing house. She is interrogated about a translator they use and receives seven slaps to the face so hard that the capillary blood vessels ‘laced over her right cheekbone burst, the  blood trickling out through her broken skin’. To put this behind her she tries to devote one day to forgetting each slap and through her attempt to forget we learn what she has been through since the uprising. In The Prisoner 1990 we hear an account of torture and brutal prison conditions from a man who shared a cell with Kim Jin-Su, another student working at the gymnasium. The particular method of torture and its physical consequences for the prisoners’ hands are clearly described. Here it is not just the physical torture they endure which is shocking but the ruined lives which follow: the men meet by chance some years later, both heavy drinkers, unable to hold down a job or relationship.

Han Kang’s close attention to physical detail-to skin, knuckle and bone- has been seen already in The Vegetarian, particularly in its section on the painting of the body. Here she also uses detail to good effect in characterisation, as in Kim Eun-sook’s take on her boss whom she does not trust ‘from close up, his open, unguarded eyes seemed unaccountably tinged with fear, and the lines circling his neck were deeper than one would have expected for someone his age’. She evokes youth and vulnerability as well as the tender mother’s eye when describing Dong-Ho ‘ There was no mistaking those toothpick arms, poking out of your short shirtsleeves. It was your narrow shoulders, your own special way of walking, loping like a little fawn’. It is through the body that she describes the unbearable humidity of the summer months: ‘the heat and humidity of an August evening pummels you… at the top of your back the sweat- soaked fabric has darkened to an inky black….the sweat clinging to the hair behind your ears crawls down over your jaw and drips onto your shirt collar’.

And there is an awareness of skin- a porosity as souls pass through the physical confines of the body to hover nearby. The horrific scene where the young machinists, defending the strikers take off their clothes in the belief that the soldiers will respect their young and virginal bodies. But there is also the feeling of solidarity evoked by skin touching-the prisoner remembers people lining up to donate blood after the massacre, singing the national anthem, ‘Those snapshot moments, when it seemed we’d all performed the miracle of stepping outside the shell of our own selves, one person’s tender skin coming into grazed contact with another, felt as though they were rethreading the sinews of that world heart, patching up the fissures from which blood had flowed, making it beat again’.

The title Human Acts seems at first to refer to the barbarity and cruelty shown by the army and police in the uprising and later violence-especially in a world where we see daily acts of barbarism via our 24 hour media. Yet the novel also contains moments of solidarity, of human goodness like the singing together of the blood donors. In The Factory Girl 2002 Lim Seong-ju, also working at the gymnasium that day, reflects on her political activism over the years and particularly on her relationship with the tireless Kim Seong-hee, a labour rights activist working to improve the conditions of young machinists. She remembers the bus full of young women workers waving their banner and singing,on their way to the main square on the fateful night of the army reentering the city. Her memories are of collective action, of unbelievable strength and solidarity. She reflects that she would have done the some again, if she were able to ‘go back’.

The author, Han Kang, was a child at the time of the uprising and has a personal connection to the events of the uprising-this is referred to by the translator, Deborah Smith, in her helpful introduction and becomes clear in the last section of the book. In this, The Writer 2013, Han Kang returns to Gwangju to find out more about the uprising and to find the grave of the boy, Dong-ho. It is a deeply moving account of her experience.

This is a powerful novel about the uprising in South Korea, its brutal repression and the long term consequences for individuals and families. But it is also about the moments of solidarity and strength which can occur. Thanks to Deborah Smith for her seamless translation and to English Pen for bringing us this work.

 

 

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August- Christa Wolf’s last short story.

August, the first short story in this slim volume of three, was written in 2011, and was the last short story written by Christa Wolf before her death in December of that year. She catapults the reader straight in to the heart of the story in the opening sentence: August remembers that just like all the children arriving by train in Mecklenburg at the end of the war without his parents, he was asked when and where he’d lost his mother. And he couldn’t remember whether the air raid had happened before or after the train crossed over the Oder and he was pulled out of it by a strange woman, hiding then in the undergrowth until the all clear, climbing back on to the train, never again to find the stranger nor his mother. He remembered his mother weeping on receiving a letter saying his father was missing in action- but he didn’t tell the Red Cross lady that, certain his father would come looking for him. He could tell her though that he was 8 years old and after examination by a doctor was sent off to a TB hospital with a cardboard sign saying ‘orphan’ around his neck.

The story then continues in the TB hospital where children and adults are being treated in desperate conditions at the end of the war: not enough food, inadequate medical facilities and treatment, children orphaned and traumatised. The one shining light for August in all this is Lilo, an older girl who stands up to the strict head nurse, cares for the other children, sings the younger ones to sleep and helps in the rudimentary schoolroom. He develops a huge crush on her, follows her everywhere, burns up with jealousy when she favours other children and especially when he sees her flirting with Harry. As the female patients laugh kindly to themselves – he is the page to her princess.

Parallel to the story of this small child at the end of the war runs the story of the adult August, now a coach driver approaching retirement and driving a coach load of pensioners home to Berlin after a holiday in Prague. As he drives northwards he reflects on periods of his life and we learn that he feels lucky to be trained as a driver, to have work and later to meet his wife Trude. Places on route such as Dresden trigger memories of Germany’s past but also of his life with Trude who has recently died. Thinking back to Lilo, he remembers the last time he saw her as she waved to him from the ambulance taking her, now cured, off to the station. He felt as if he would never again feel joy. As he returns to his flat in Marzahn at the end of the trip, he dreads the emptiness he’ll find- he has still not adjusted to living alone. But, still, he feels thankful to have known, just once in his life, happiness. Happiness with Trude or the joy he felt with Lilo? This is left open.

This beautiful story paints a sobering and heart rending picture of the lives of ordinary German civilians at the end of the war- and unlike much fiction set at this time gives us the longer view of what actually happened to those civilians who lost so much in the rest of their lives. The story is made all the more poignant by the child’s perspective through which it is told-we adult readers can all too easily interpret the signs of deteriorating health observed by the little boy in the other children and the overheard conversations between medical staff. And August’s devotion to Lilo, the compassionate and brave, in these circumstances is both utterly believable and unbearably touching. This is Christa Wolf’s last story and must be one of her finest- it will stay with me for a long time.

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