Bis ans Ende, Marie by Barbara Rieger-the story of a friendship.

I first heard about this debut novel by the Austrian writer Barbara Rieger on the Büchermarkt podcast. I was intrigued by the account of a book about a female friendship with an unequal balance of power, having recently read Sally Rooney’s Normal People and, for the first time, Country Girls by Edna O’ Brien, both of which feature power at play in relations between friends.

This story is narrated in the first person by the young female protagonist-whose name we never know-a psychology student in Vienna, who meets Marie working in a bar. Immediately attracted to Marie’s blonde good looks and easy confident manner, she falls in with her and her crowd and follows them through the bars, clubs and music venues of the city, getting drunk and stoned with them and observing Marie’s frequent and casual sexual encounters.

The protagonist herself comes from a different milieu. We piece together, through a text which is episodic and fragmentary at times, that her parents are doctors, that she gave up her medical studies because she couldn’t stand the sight of blood and at the same time abandoned her former boyfriend, Alexander, also a medical student. Barbara Rieger deftly depicts the stiff formality of this milieu via a couple of family events and leaves us in no doubt about her parents’ lack of warmth and the crushing weight of family expectations.

The protagonist is therefore in a very vulnerable place when she meets Marie, and her fragility is highlighted by the content of some of her psychology lectures which are quoted in the text. As the story goes on it seems to illustrate some of these ideas: that of the halo effect as exemplified by her adulation of Marie in the beginning at least and then of the split personality. These parallels intensify as the story goes on and there are passages where we are unsure whether a dream or a fantasy is being described- or is the protagonist suffering from hallucinations?

Now there is not a whole lot of plot development in the novel and I was relieved when the action moved away from the partying and hangovers in Vienna. Marie invites the protagonist to visit her at her family’s home in the beautiful mountainous Salzkammergut region and we then see Marie’s hedonism in another context as she effortlessly strides up the mountain and eats her mother’s Schnitzel with gusto-there’s quite a lot of Marie enjoying her food, while the narrator picks at the occasional salad. And there’s also a holiday in the summer with others in the clique visiting both Vienna and Croatia, drinking and sun worshipping, tipping into a very tense and scary scene leaping from rocks into the sea below.

One aspect of Marie’s nastiness is her mocking of the protagonist for her more cautious approach to sexual encounters, in particular her liking for fellow student Dominic and her difficulty in plucking up the courage to do anything about it. Her power games really intensify over this relationship to the point where I wanted to shriek NO! when Marie eventually moves in to the narrator’s flat. At the same time the narrator’s mental fragility is becoming more evident with more frequent dreams and fantasies, and remarks from others, from friends and a lecturer, noticing she’s unwell, asking how she is.

Barbara Rieger’s use of language underpins the novel. On the one hand the short sentences and brief snatched dialogue illustrate the pace of life of these young people. The recurrence of leitmotifs like the blood and strands of long blond hair reflect the narrator’s obsessions. There are scenes of couples and threesomes dancing and having sex where switching pronouns seem to show a dissolving of personal boundaries and the word  penetration is used both in its sexual sense, but also to suggest Marie invading and taking over the narrator’s self, her very inner being.

So on the one hand I feel this is a novel for young people. There’s a lot of drinking, sex and straight talking about sex from Marie which probably resonates more with a young readership. Throughout the book the characters hum and sing song lyrics-Barbara Rieger said in an interview that the lyrics were carefully selected to suit the characters and has given us a list at the back of the book. But I think the novel can also be read as a young woman’s search for identity on the cusp of adulthood, when leaving the parental home- a time of life which can be tricky for many young people to navigate. The scene which really illustrates that for me is when she’s trying to select which underwear to put on, thinking of the pink set she wore as a child, the white set Alexander liked her in and then the black bra and knickers preferred by Marie. How can she find her own self while others project their own wishes and demands onto her? This is the less strident, more subtle subtext I’ll take away from reading the novel, while admiring Barbara Rieger for creating a fluid and multilayered work.

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Der Gott jenes Sommers by Ralf Rothmann

This is Ralf Rothmann’ s eagerly awaited latest novel- eagerly awaited because its a kind of sequel to the fantastically successful Im Frühling sterbenTo Die in Spring– a bestseller now translated into 25 languages. The novel deals with a similar time period, early 1945 and the last months of the second world war, and is set in the same farm outside the city of Kiel where the protagonist of Im Frühling sterben, Walter Urban, was working before being enlisted for the Front. Walter does appear as a minor character in this second novel, but it’s really the story of 12 year old Luisa and her family who are refugees from Kiel and waiting out the last months of the war at the farm.

The Norff family comprises Luisa’s mother and older sister, Sibylle, who are living in better conditions than most on the farm thanks to the intervention and protection of Vincent, a high ranking Nazi married to Luisa’s older half sister Gudrun. Luisa’s father, who runs a casino for naval officers, lives in Kiel and appears at the weekends with books for Luisa and treats for the others-Luisa’s bookishness runs through the novel and works as a kind of talisman or escape from the reality of the adult world.

Now the novel is plot light, with the narrative driven by events in Luisa’s daily life set against a background of increasing destruction and chaos. We see the deprivation and hunger suffered by the civilian population queuing up for their meagre daily milk ration on the farm. The bombing of Kiel is ever present, with fire and smoke hanging over the city. Luisa’s school is bombed and towards the end columns of refugees are seen on the streets, as well as bands of slave labourers: this is an apocalyptic account of a society on the brink of collapse. Yet against this background more personal dramas take place. Luisa falls in love for the first time with Walter, in a kind of innocent 12 year old way, Sibylle puts all her energies into making herself attractive to men, usually older and powerful. (She seems to  be a victim of sexual exploitation to me). Gudrun becomes pregnant, fulfilling her duty as a Nazi wife, while her husband Vincent’s sleazy philandering slides into serious sexual assault and attempted rape.

As in Im Frühling Sterben and Junges Licht, Rothmann excels at set pieces: his depiction of the party at Vincent and Gudrun’s home with the dresses, the lavish food, the dancing, was compelling and evoked an unnerving preapocalyptic feeling. The account of the wig workshop was also powerfully uncanny-where Ole’s mother made wigs for victims of the fires in Kiel whose hair would never grow back. Rothmann has a wonderful feel for animals and I loved the tender description of Luisa’s favourite horse, Brise, broken and weary and the account of Walter and Luisa together helping to birth a calf.

Where the novel disappoints is in its characterisation. Not so much of Luisa- I enjoyed her bookish 12 year old take on the world around her and of course as in Junges Licht, with a protagonist of the same age, there is often an interesting gap between her innocent view and the adult readers’ interpretation of sexual undercurrents. It was other characters I found unsatisfactory. I got bored with the focus on Sibylle’s attempts to glam up and the repetitive and sometimes laboured dialogue between her and her sisters on their likely success with men. And I found Gudrun and others, for example the Nazi teacher, rather one dimensional vehicles for Nazi ideology. So I found I had little invested in the characters and their fates, apart from Luisa.

Now I should mention that there is a second narrative thread running through the novel. The main story is interleaved with an account by a fictional chronicler of the Thirty Years’ War. The language, which is of that time, I’ll confess to finding difficult here and my engagement was not helped by the gruesomeness of some of the atrocities recounted. Think Goya’s sketches of the Peninsular Wars. I guess if I’d worked harder at these parts they may have helped me understand the ending of the novel a little better.

So I was a little disappointed by this novel, given how much I’ve enjoyed the other two I’ve read by Ralf Rothmann. It may be that I’d like a break from war narratives, especially at the moment with terrible conflicts in the world and the rise of populism. I’ve been wondering too why he wanted to go back to this story, having done it so brilliantly in Im Frühling sterben. Personally, I think I’ll go back to his earlier books, Milch und Kohle and Stier. But, Rothmann fans, take a look at this one. You may find something there that I missed.

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Milkman by Anna Burns

Milkman, the brilliant deserved winner of the Man Booker Prize 2018, is a book about a young 18 year woman who’s being stalked. She’s being stalked in Northern Ireland in the seventies at the height of the Troubles, and not just by the eponymous milkman but eventually by the whole community too. They come to believe that she’s milkman’s girlfriend and as this rumour develops, the community, its day to day existence and accommodations, are laid out before us in a cast of characters both wittily and chillingly portrayed.

You may wonder about the title. Milkman is the name of the stalker. He’s 41 and the protagonist narrator is 18- all this is told us on the first page. The narrator doesn’t know why he’s called milkman-though the reader might pick up a hint later on- but we learn that he’s a renouncer of the state and so a member of the powerful group which runs and controls the community. We never know the narrator’s name. She’s known as middle sister/ middle daughter or maybe girlfriend, depending on who she’s with. Her family are all designated according to where they come in the family and other characters are known as, for example, maybe boyfriend or longest friend.

The novel is structured around milkman’s appearances. The first meeting occurs when the narrator is walking along the street reading Ivanhoe.( We learn that the narrator rejects 20th century literature, preferring the 19th century or preferably earlier). His car draws up and he offers her a lift. She turns it down, preferring her reading while walking. He smiles pleasantly, lets her know that he knows all about her family, then drives off. In the second meeting he appears out of nowhere when she’s running in the park, intruding on her space as he runs beside her. He seems to know what she does at work, what time bus she takes- and then disappears. This is unnerving to say the least- but its at the third meeting that four sinister henchmen appear with him and he starts talking about car bombs, letting her know in the next breath that he knows all about her boyfriend. She’s terrified of course that the boyfriend’s life is in danger and tries to plead with him not to use his car, bringing tension and misunderstandings into their relationship.

This is in many ways a classic account of stalking: the sudden and unexplained appearances and disappearances, the stalker gaining control over the victim through their knowledge of their lives and movements, all intended to destabilise and dis-empower them. The narrator’s feelings of powerlessness and isolation are exacerbated by the rumour that she’s embarked on an affair with him which even her own mother, known as ma, believes. She hopes for support from longest friend, only for her to say that she’s brought problems on herself with her weird and deviant beyond the pale behaviour, consisting of all that walking and reading.

It’s certainly true that the narrator doesn’t fit into her community. Her reading material,which is referred to more and more as the plot develops, is extraordinarily broad  and goes back many centuries. In her free time she attends a French class- as no Greek or Latin is available- and she has an imaginative and emotional depth which are in contrast to to others in the community. Now this may all sound a little sententious, but is in fact evoked with a light hearted wit and in a sort of offside, left field way in scenes such as the French class where the teacher is trying to persuade the class to see the glorious colours of the sunset and the rest of the class stubbornly maintain a sky can only be blue. ( One of the sickening effects of milkman’s harassment is that the narrator feels a sort of numbness descending on her, as if her emotions and imagination, her very personality are leaching away.)

The French class scene is one of several set pieces where the writer’s skill really dazzles. My favourite is when maybe boyfriend comes home with a Bentley supercharger. A passionate mechanic, he’s thrilled to have this rare piece of luxury car kit to play about with and the whole community comes round to have a look. The atmosphere changes when somebody raises the question of where the Bentley comes from- it’s from over the water isn’t it?  and might even have a certain flag on it to flaunt that fact. In some breath taking flights of rhetoric he suggests that having any piece of that car in your house might be tantamount to supporting that country and betraying the renouncers. The celebratory atmosphere is punctured and one by one the car enthusiasts slink off.  It’s as if the reminder of power politics, the presence of threat and control,  dampens their joy, makes shadows out of people.

And the novel does not pull its punches in its depiction of this power and control. This is a community where the men in balaclavas turn up and inform you that your house is being used as an arms cache, where you don’t go to the hospital for treatment as you’ll be asked to work as an informer, where the British army shoot all the dogs in the area and pile them up at the end of the alley to show you who’s in charge. Through her own memories and accounts of what happened to family and neighbours these accounts weave through middle sister’s story and depict the experience of a community at war and the attempts of non combatants to stay alive. But there are positive and uplifting stories here too. The Women’s Movement of the early seventies spread to Northern Ireland and both the seven women feminists and the ordinary women managed to break the curfew through street protests which the British soldiers didn’t dare put down,  to shoot up a district of women, prams and goldfish…to run them through with swords, much as one might like to, would not look good..

This is a first person narrative and a very intense read. The voice is unique: it combines a rather formal register and syntax with the vernacular in a way which sometimes made me laugh out loud: He himself was not naturally argumentative  and nor did he link with the punch up mentality. The language- and the naming- can be playful and this feeds into the humour which flares up at times, surprisingly, given the dark subject matter-I loved the brother who left home to get some peace and quiet in the Middle East. According to Sam Leith, critics have found Milkman difficult and challenging. Sure, this is not a book to be read while falling asleep at bedtime, but a novel which demands the reader’s careful attention. It is rich, many layered and profound and still running through my mind days after reading.

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Ein schönes Paar- a Handsome Couple by Gert Loschuetz

I hadn’t come across Gerd Loschütz before but was curious about this book after hearing it reviewed on the Büchermarkt podcast and recommended by the proprietor of the Botnanger Buchladen, my favourite German indie bookshop . It was said to be about a photographer trying to piece together his parents’ lives from photographs and his own memories- and trying to understand how they ended up separated yet living in the same town in old age. As someone who’s been spending quite some time recently poring over old family photographs, willing them to speak to me, to tell me their stories, this seemed a promising read. Even more so as the love story/family drama takes place against the background of a post war divided Germany and the family fleeing the East for the West.

The eponymous  handsome couple meet and settle in East Germany after the war. Georg was  an officer in the German army, Herta a fashion conscious dress shop assistant with the looks of a model. After making enquiries about working in the West, Georg runs the risk of being arrested and flees East Germany for the West to avoid this. Herta and their son, the narrator, follow on afterwards. There, further bad luck befalls them and Georg, having committed a relatively minor theft, is accused of stealing a far larger amount and finishes up in prison. When he returns, Herta leaves the family and is then absent for many years, sending occasional postcards to her son but giving very little away about where she’s living and avoiding all contact with Georg. Even when they are in the same town at the end of their lives, they have nothing to do with one another- or so it seems until a discovery made by the narrator at the end of the novel.

This is not a conventional linear narrative. The novel starts with Georg’s funeral, followed closely by that of Herta, which leads the narrator to reflect and look back over their lives, relating scenes and incidents prompted by photographs and memories. I had no problem with this fragmentary, episodic approach, but the narration is entirely from the point of view of the son and so Herta and Georg remain rather two dimensional and at times I found the detailed physical descriptions of the handsome couple a little repetitive. (Perhaps some photos would have made them come alive? Alright, I know they’re not real people and maybe this author doesn’t want to play with the notion of fiction like Gabriel Vasquez, but still I longed for a photo at times). It also made it hard to feel much for them or their situation-I didn’t particularly believe in their grand passion. I wanted to know more about them and their motivation-where was Herta all that time and why did she say so little in her postcards? We never find out.

I found the narrator as a child strangely unemotional as well. He relates his mother ‘s absence, surely very traumatic for a child in the 1950s, and his solitary life with an uncommunicative father in a flat, matter of fact tone. I wanted him to react to the father’s silence (that Schweigen which seems such a feature of 20th century inter generational relationships, as in Paula or die Königin schweigt ), to express anger, frustration or misery. Still, this lack of emotion in the child is contrasted in a couple of powerful scenes with the adult narrator. The first is shortly after the funerals and describes the effects of grief: the disorientation, the feeling of being cut off from others talking by a sound proof wall, wandering concentration. The fear that he’s suffering from the same symptoms as his father. And then the chapter towards the end when he visits both parents in old age- his father’s delight at seeing him, yet the limitation of their conversation, his mother leaning her cheek on his hand when he touches her shoulder. I found these last scenes intensely moving and authentic: they seemed to come from the heart whereas there seemed to me a lack of heart in the central relationship between Herta and Georg.

Weaving through the story and providing a foil for Herta and Georg’s relationship is the narrator’s friendship with Mila. She’s a friend, a former lover and a confidante, someone with whom the narrator can share his discoveries and theories about his parents and we see fragments of this friendship over many years too.  Their warm and open exchanges in dialogue contrast with the silence overlaying the narrator’s childhood and I experienced them as a real relief, glad to be back in the modern, contemporary world and away from those inscrutable and elusive parents.

I’ve focused very much here on the family memories and relationships. The novel does also give us a flavour of living in those post war years, both in the communist east and the west. I really enjoyed the account of the family holiday at the communist holiday camp- the Ferienheim des FdGB- where the excitement and novelty of this great week by the seaside is thrillingly conveyed. And Gert Loschütz’ s narrator, a photographer, is able to conjure up vibrant images of many characters with his great eye for detail. Yet the problem for me was that the handsome couple only really came alive towards the end of the novel: before that I couldn’t quite believe in them.

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A gem of a festival in South West France- Festilitt at Parisot.

What could be more delightful than to spend a warm golden October weekend in the south of France amongst books and book lovers? This is what the small village of Parisot in the département of Tarn-et-Garonne has offered for the last 6 years through its annual literature festival, Festilitt. The festival is unique in that it was set up as a joint venture by the French and English community living in the area and provides an English and French strand of book readings, talks and events to suit both groups (I’m told that an additional benefit of this dual offer for  the organisers is the pleasure of working together and learning that there’s more than one way to do things!)

This year I had the opportunity to go and had a fantastic time. I went to four events with

 

English language authors representing a really broad range of writing. Historian and academic Richard Vinen talked about his recent nonfiction book The Long 68, relating the student and worker uprising in France to similar events in Germany, Britain and the US and looking at the long term effects of those revolts. Mike Poulton’s career has been adapting and translating literature for the stage. As well as working on classic texts from Chekhov and Ibsen, his more recent work has been the adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. On Sunday I enjoyed  listening to journalist Clare Mulley talk about her book The Women who flew for Hitler, on two ace women pilots who flew for the Third Reich. She was followed by Scottish writer Graeme Macrae Burnet, known for his Booker short listed His Bloody Project and here talking entertainingly about his two recent novels set in northern France.

The French strand included novelists, poets and children’ s author Marie-Laure Depaulis, who participated in ateliers with the local primary school children, culminating in a presentation of their work on the Opening Night at the Salle des Fêtes. On the Sunday morning I enjoyed a great presentation by Luc Corlouër on the history of La Compagnie des Indes, the historical background to his recent novel De Port-Louis à Port- Louis.

But it’s not just about listening  passively to the great and the good displaying their talent. Throughout the festival there’s an active buying and selling of second hand books, both French and English, in the former village post office, as well as a sale of  new books by the participating authors. There’s an infinite supply of tea and cake, provided by the English community in exquisite bone china cups. There’s a display and sale of art work inspired by the works of the participating authors. But perhaps the highlight of the fringe events is the Saturday night dinner with the authors, held this time at the Salle des Fêtes in neighbouring Verneil and comprising a splendid 3 course meal with an author at your table. ( I didn’ t get to speak to Graeme Burnet sitting at ours, but instead to two different people, both readers of course, on their second and third visits to the festival,with whom I talked books.)

So this was an incredibly enjoyable weekend at Festilitt and much thanks should be given to the organisers both French and English who work tirelessly all year round to make it happen. More information can be found at the website and if you put your name on the mailing list you’ll receive exciting titbits about the proposed programme for the following year which you’ll find hard to resist. Festilitt is a gem of a festival and I’m still basking in its golden glow!

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The importance of memory and memorialization in today’s Europe- Les Amnesiques by Geraldine Schwarz.

How timely to be reading this book over the same weekend that has seen over 100,000 March in central Berlin towards the Brandenburg Gate - 13 Octoberpeople marching in Berlin, protesting against xenophobia and the rise of the far right. Les Amnésiques, recently published in Germany as die Gedächtnislosen, examines the differing responses in Europe to Hitler’s fascist régime and the Holocaust through an interrogation of the writer’s own family. Beginning with the post war period Géraldine Schwarz considers the responsibility of her German grandfather, Kurt Schwarz, in condoning the Hitler régime- and brings the debate right up to the present day in suggesting that the rise of right wing populist movements in Europe today is linked to the extent to which individual countries have acknowledged and worked through terrible events in their pasts.

Géraldine Schwarz is a German/ French journalist living in Berlin. She starts her quest to find out more about her grandfather’s role during the Hitler period when she finds a bundle of correspondence with Julius Löbmann neatly filed away in her grandfather’s cellar. Julius Löbmann was the original Jewish owner of the petrochemical company which Kurt Schwarz bought at a knock down price in 1938 when Jewish owned companies were forced to ‘aryanise’. After the war, the Allies introduced legislation allowing Jewish business owners who’d been robbed in this way to claim compensation and in 1948 Julius Löbmann  did just that. In reading this correspondence Géraldine Schwarz notes the self-pitying, complaining tone with which her grandfather describes his straitened financial circumstances post war with little regard for the appalling suffering of Julius Löbmann, who lost most of his family in Ausschwitz. Kurt Schwarz was what is known as a Mitläufer, someone who may have been a member of the NSDAP but was not necessarily a committed Nazi ideologically and did not commit any atrocities. She states he only gained a relatively small financial advantage in his purchase of the company. He was, in other words, someone who just went along with the Nazi régime and appeared not to notice, or at least did not react, when 2,000 Jews were rounded up and deported from Mannheim on October 22nd 1940 just down the road from his house.

The behaviour and attitudes of Kurt Schwarz and his generation are discussed in the context of post war Germany and the Allied Occupation. We learn that there was in general little examination of the responsibility of the German people for the Nazi régime and the Holocaust. The Nuremberg trials had a limited role here, holding only certain high ranking Nazis responsible and the denazification measures were applied variably across the four occupied zones, with the British zone being particularly half hearted. Quite quickly after the end of the war the Allies’ concerns turned to the threat of communism from the East, while the first Chancellor of the new Federal Republic of Germany, Konrad Adenauer, evinced a Schlussstrichmentalität– a desire to draw a line under the past in order to help Germany move forward and look to the future. It is shocking to learn that between 60,000 and 80,000 former Nazis were thought to be living under false names in Germany in the post war period protected by family, friends and former colleagues.

Géraldine Schwarz shows her talent as a journalist throughout the book in her careful selection of material to illustrate the very gradual development of awareness of  responsibility. As has been well documented elsewhere, the student movements of the late 60s in Germany and the questions they asked led to more widespread recognition, expressed so notably when Willi Brandt sank to his knees in front of the Jewish memorial in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970 in a gesture of grief and humility. The book interweaves an account of these years with the story and recollections of the writer’s father, Volker, born in 1943 and growing up under a blanket of silence about the war. He learned about the war from his own reading, his father being unwilling or unable to discuss it, and his school making only a token attempt to teach this period.

As a franco-allemande, educated in both Germany and France, Géraldine Schwarz has a personal interest in examining the role of the French too, collaborating with the Nazi régime in its deportation of the Jews. Her own mother, Josiane, used to take a bus to the Sorbonne which travelled right by Drancy, a housing development used as a transit camp for Jews rounded up in Paris and elsewhere, from where they were taken by train to Ausschwitz. Yet after the war people claimed not to know that the camp was being used for this purpose. Géraldine Schwarz’ maternal grandfather, Lucian, was a gendarme and sent to the village of Mont- Saint- Vincent in the Free Zone, from where he was tasked to patrol the border between Occupied France to the north and the Free Zone to the south. Many Jews escaped to the relative safety of the Free Zone by crossing this line and Lucian claimed to have turned a blind eye to several going across. Yet the nearby town of Montceau-les- Mines saw Jews being rounded up by French gendarmes which was the story all over France. We are given several accounts of the assiduousness of the French in collaborating with the Nazis in rounding up the Jews and, shockingly, their zeal extending to offering Jewish children to fulfil the quotas even before the Germans had asked for this: at the Vél d’Hiv round up Pierre Laval asked Eichmann if they would take the children too as the French authorities didn’t know what to do with the children whose parents had been deported.

At the end of the war there was a period of lawless reckoning with collaborators, involving 9,000 summary executions and women accused of la collaboration horizontale shaved and paraded through the streets. Yet despite this épuration– cleansing- many actual collaborators remained in France, holding positions of authority. And the convenient post war myth of la France résistante held sway for some time, until Robert Paxton shattered this idea in his 1973 book La France de Vichy which claims that in fact the active Resistance was never more than 2% of the population. As with her treatment of Germany, Géraldine Schwarz outlines the different stages of awareness of French collaboration culminating in President Jacques Chirac acknowledging France’s role in Vichy at a ceremony in the Vél d’Hiv in 1995. Yet for reasons discussed in the book, Géraldine Schwarz feels that France’s attitude to its culpability is more ambivalent than that of Germany.

And what of East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, which grew out of the former Soviet Zone and became an independent communist state in 1949, albeit heavily influenced and controlled by the Soviet Union and its propaganda? Géraldine Schwarz describes the sacking of former Nazi party members after the war and the setting up of summary trials in the 1950s-but after that the propaganda was that the communists had been fighting the fascist Nazis and therefore could not be guilty of Nazi crimes. Legislation allowing Jewish people to reclaim their property at the end of the war was never enforced in the GDR, so that when the Berlin wall fell, and  the communist state collapsed, the prospect of potential claims by former Jewish property owners was a deterrent to possible future investors in the former East. Over and above this, though, the fact that the East Germans had not worked through their Nazi past, and lived for 40 years in a state cut off from other cultures and influences, led to an increased rate of xenophobia and racism in the  5 Bundesländer which comprised the former East Germany,  and has now led to increased support for organisations like Pegida and the new political party Alternative für Deutschland particularly in the former East.

Now Géraldine Schwarz, in the last third of the book does cast her net wide, extending her discussion to the Axis countries of Italy and Austria- both of which come off badly in terms of facing up to their collaboration with the Nazis and their own facism- and the former Soviet Bloc countries such as Hungary and Roumania. There is much interesting material here but this felt almost like a different book as it moved away then from considering her own family’s involvement. In the first part of the book the experiences and reactions of her grandparents, Kurt and Lydia, are brought vividly to life, and her father, Volker, weaves through the narrative, bringing us back to the lived experience. This for me was one of the book’s strengths, its portrayal of personal stories. The early life of her grandmother, Lydia, who was born in 1901, and lost her mother and 6 siblings during her childhood, exemplifies for me the different lives and expectations for young women in Europe a century ago. The past is indeed another country and Géraldine Schwarz conveys this maxim well in her treatment of the different life experiences and hence different attitudes towards historical events and responsibility across the generations.

Still, the whole thesis of her book is that we ignore the past at our peril. So in the marches this weekend in Berlin we see perhaps a work in progress: the protests from an enlightened and democratic section of Germany who have worked through their Nazi past against the xenophobia of others who have not yet come so far. As we look at this from a UK on the brink of Brexit it strikes me that all Europeans would do well to heed the title of her last chapter: Les Nazis ne meurent jamais– the Nazis never die.

 

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In conversation with Julianne Pachico-from Colombia to Sheffield


I was bowled over to discover that Julianne Pachico, writer of The Lucky Ones, is teaching at our very own Sheffield Hallam University, and even more thrilled when she agreed to have an interview with me at Peak Reads. Julianne’s career has taken her from Colombia to the US, from Norwich to Sheffield and I was sure this multi cultural experience has had a powerful effect on her work.

  1. Welcome to Sheffield, Julianne, and thanks for agreeing to do this interview. What brings you here?

I’ve been teaching at Sheffield Hallam since February of last year, so for about a year and a half, and I moved here last week. When I got the job I was finishing my PhD so it wasn’t ideal for me to move, but as from last week I’m a Sheffield native.

  1. You’ve lived in England, in Colombia and the States- is there any one country you identify with more closely?

One interesting reference point recently was watching the World Cup when Colombia played against England. I was watching it with my English boyfriend who ended up cheering for England, but I was cheering for Colombia from the very beginning. So I found that very interesting, that even though I have a UK passport, my mother is English, genetically I’m half English, the team I was supporting was Colombia. I guess because I grew up in Colombia, that was my childhood home where all my formative experiences and memories took place I’m going to have a connection with that country. My parents live in the States and I speak with a US accent because I went to a school with a United States curriculum, but I only lived in the States for 4 years and when people ask me ‘what’s going on in America? Why are people so obsessed with guns?’ I’m like ‘you’re asking the wrong person, I have no idea’. I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to move in and out of different cultures and countries. What’s interesting about living here in England, is that even though I’m genetically British, and our family history goes back to the 1600s, because of my background and my accent I’ll always be seen as a foreigner here- always. I think that’s not really a bad thing and what I love about England is an openness and receptiveness to people living here. That may be changing but I hope it continues.

  1. I’d like to ask you about The Lucky Ones which I’ve read and think is an absolutely fabulous book. I saw it from the beginning as a collection of short linked stories but I was reading some critics who refer to it as a novel. I’m wondering which you see it as and why you chose this particular form?

In the States it was marketed as a novel which I think is very interesting given that a lot of famous short story writers are from the US, so it’s ironic that in the US they wanted to call it a novel-it was the publisher’s decision that the public preferred reading novels to reading short stories. My intention from the beginning was the linked collection, the fragmented novel, which is a form  I enjoy reading-books like Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell or Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, books that aren’t really collections and aren’t really novels, so I just wanted to write the kind of book I enjoy reading. It also felt appropriate to me when writing about Colombia. I didn’t want to write a book in which everything was explained, everything was resolved, which might be frustrating for some people but just felt like an honest and authentic way of writing about Colombia for me, which is a very confusing place to live in, a place where it’s difficult to get any definitive answers and it’s also a country that is sort of fragmented and sort of broken so that’s also why the form felt appropriate to me. I think also writing short stories in terms of being a first book, the beginning of my career, just seemed easier, less intimidating than writing a novel. I’ve written a novel since, so now I’ve tried both.

  1. In the book there’s a lot about the violence and the experience of living in the jungle, the hardships of that experience for the people who’ve been kidnapped but also for the guerrillas who’ve been there for many years. What research did you do in order to write in such detail about that experience?

I read a lot of memoirs and non-fiction, a lot of journalism. I looked at a lot of photographs online. I did read fiction by Colombian writers but I think what was most helpful to me was the non-fiction. Writing stories like Lemon Pie or M& M which are set in the jungle, it was really helpful to read books by people who’d been held hostage, who’d been kidnapped or who’d been part of the armed insurgency. Also I had to leave in order to see Colombia from a different perspective. When I was living there as a child I wasn’t really interested in the situation as when you’re a teenager you’re more interested in your own self absorbed life. This is something I’ve heard other writers say- so Kazuo Ishiguro for example, his first two books are about Japan despite him having spent very little time there-he left as a child. That seems to be an interesting pattern- people need to leave in order to write about somewhere.

  1. Along with the very realistic descriptions of life in the jungle for the guerrillas there’s also surreal elements in the book, for example The Tourists which is from the rabbits’ point of view. There’s also a lot of fantasy fiction being read and films being talked about and I’m wondering if you can just talk a little bit about why you chose to include the surreal, the fantasy elements?

One of the first things people think about when they think about Colombian fiction will be magical realism, because of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and One Hundred Years of Solitude. I think the way most people think about magical realism is about magical things happening but described in a very realistic way so like in One Hundred Years of Solitude a priest drinks a cup of hot chocolate and he levitates so like surreal things happening in everyday life. I think that’s a very present thread in Colombian literature, that being said it’s not that I sat down with the intention of writing in a very surreal way because that’s what Colombian literature is. I think again it was more a result of that being the kind of fiction I enjoy. I do read a lot of science fiction and I do read a lot of fantasy. The rabbit story for example was my attempt to write a horror story. Also I’m a big fan of Kafka and he has this story about this unidentified animal living in a burrow so I think the fantastical elements that come out in the book are the results of my tastes and reading patterns. And in Garcia Marquez, in One Hundred Years of Solitude  he has  these very magical things happen, people levitating, the  insomnia plague, but then there are events like all these workers are massacred but that’ s forgotten about, it’s just completely hidden, I think that by juxtaposing these two things he’s saying that hiding the reality of this violence, that all these dead people being ignored, that’s the most unbelievable thing that happened that’s almost more unbelievable than levitating women.

  1. I was wondering whether in your writing you had any sort of agenda about telling the world about Colombia, about the violence going on there? Was that a mission that you had, was it a conscious thing?

I think what was conscious was to try to represent different facets of Colombia. For example I know that one huge part of Colombia, when people think of Colombia, is drugs, so I wanted to have a story that was about someone taking drugs, someone living abroad and taking cocaine, as that’s how a lot of people encounter Colombia, through this product it exports. I did think I want to have a story about the guerrilla insurgents and what it’s like to live in the jungle and the camp and a story about what it’s like living in a very rural village that’s been affected by a lot of paramilitary violence, where a lot of people have left like in Armadillo Man the next to last story. In terms of having a project about making a statement or trying to teach people about Colombia or Colombia’s violence that’s something I still struggle with as a writer and it’s a conversation I had recently with another Colombian writer where I was asking him whether fiction is sort of pointless in terms of doing anything useful. His point was that that was a misguided way to think of fiction, to think of fiction as having this role to instruct. It can, but that maybe shouldn’t be the primary goal of the writer, the primary goal of the writer, he said, should just be about the words on the page and creating an emotional experience for the reader and if you’re someone interested in politics then that’s going to come out in the writing but it shouldn’t be this artificial thing that you put on the text as otherwise it’ll just become preachy. That was very interesting for me to hear, especially writing about Colombia in the UK. I think in the US it’s a bit different because geographically the US is closer to Colombia, there’s more Colombian immigrants living there, more Spanish speaking immigrants in general, economically the US has invested a lot more money in Colombia so I think it’s a bit different there. I think here, based on my own personal experience for what it’s worth, I haven’t really met that many people who know anything about Colombia, so in a way it makes me happy if people can read this book and learn something about Colombia that maybe they didn’t know before. But even though I was sort of intentional about what I was trying to represent, I really didn’t want to make it this project where I was trying to dictate a certain point of view.

7.I’m very aware that in Latin American literature there are these big names like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, writers people know about, but there are other writers, for example women writers, that people know much less about and I’m wondering if you think that’s the case with Colombian writing? I think a lot of that has to do with translation, who gets translated. Those two authors you cited are from a specific time period, the Boom movement, which was very much about authors with big personalities, authors who were very involved in politics, Garcia Marquez was so connected with Cuba for better or worse, and Vargas Llosa ran for president and I don’t think it’s quite the same now. I agree I think it’s important to hear different voices and I think that’s where translators become so valuable in finding books that haven’t got the audience they deserve and bringing them to a wider audience. I’ve always been very interested in translated fiction and a lot of that has to do with just getting books. Getting books in Spanish here in England is very  difficult, sometimes I get them on the Kindle but then I don’t really like reading on the Kindle so sometimes it’s just easier to get something in translation. So  more support for translators would be important in getting those other voices heard and I think publishers like And Other Stories or Tilted Axis Press are instrumental in this.

  1. Do you see yourself going back to live in Colombia one day?

I don’t know. Who can say what the future will bring?  I guess for now my focus is on my writing career, finding ways to support that. I have a teaching position at Sheffield Hallam which suits me well, it’s part time and gives me time to write. I get a lot out of working with my students too.

  1. My last question is what are you working on now? Can we expect another book, or another collection of short stories?

I recently submitted my novel to my agent.  It’s set in Medellin, in Colombia. Just like with the Lucky Ones I didn’t set out to write about Colombia, it just sort of happened and I think it was the result of the Peace Negotiations and travel to Colombia becoming a much more popular option. If The Lucky Ones was more about Colombia’ s past, this book is more about Colombia’s present and future- where it’s going to go from here.

Well that sounds like it will be a fascinating novel, I’m very much looking forward to reading it. Thank you very much, Julianne, for this conversation.

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