Unter der Drachenwand by Arno Geiger

Arno Geiger, much praised for his moving memoir of his father’s descent into Alzheimer’s, has now written a book on a much larger canvas: Unter der Drachenwand, Under the Drachenwand, set in 1944 in the last year of the Second World War. The novel in fact works on both a small and a  large canvas. It’s set largely in the village of Mondsee, beneath the Drachenwand mountain, but by including letters from other characters it extends its reach to show us the wholesale destruction and devastation wrought by the Nazi regime, from Darmstadt in Germany in the west to Budapest in the east.

The main story is narrated by 23 year old Veit Kolbe, who has been seriously injured on the Eastern Front. He returns to his family in Vienna to recuperate, but can’t settle there. His wounds are a constant preoccupation, he’s suffering from flashbacks-what we would now call PTSD-and can’t stomach the platitudinous comments from his father about the imminent victory for the Reich- when the father has no idea about the carnage and chaos at the front. Veit goes off to Mondsee where his uncle works as the local police chief, rents a room from the Quartiersfrau- the woman in charge of lodgings- and while writing a journal becomes a kind of observer of Austrian village life at that time.

We’re given a canvas of locals and incomers, the latter, like Veit Kolbe, having turned up as refugees during the war. There’s a class of girls evacuated from Vienna with their teacher who march around the village in military style and threadbare clothes. There’s an eccentric Austrian called der Brasilianer, the man from Brazil, who grows orchids for sale in Salzburg in his greenhouse, and longs for the warmth and human tolerance of South America. There’s a friendly young woman refugee from Darmstadt. Margot, living next door to Veit with her baby, her husband at the front. The locals are presented as unsympathetic and unquestioning Nazi fellow travellers-suspicious of incomers and people who are different, they are harsh in their judgement of others who appear to be undermining their power or who simply don’t conform. Their stories and everyday interactions are narrated by Veit against a background of the changing seasons and winter coming on, evoking an atmosphere of normalcy. At the same time, the constant presence of enemy planes overhead, on their way to bomb Salzburg and Vienna, together with the well observed details of scarcity, let us know these times are anything but normal.

The destruction of Darmstadt is brought to us through letters to Margot from her mother and the increasing anti-semitism and persecution of the Jews first in Vienna and then in Budapest by the account of Oskar Meyer who changes his name several times. I experienced these diversions from the main narrative as interruptions at first: it wasn’t really clear whether they were letters, or a diary account, and it seemed a rather contrived device to tell us what was going on elsewhere in the Reich in 1944. However the account of the Jewish family in particular did slowly draw me in and here there was evidence of careful and meticulous historical research in the account of the atrocities committed in Hungary not by the Germans but by the horrendous Hungarian fascist group, the Arrow Cross.

The third set of inter collated texts are a series of letters from 17 year old Kurt to his 13 year old cousin, Annemarie, one of the girls evacuated to Mondsee. We learn early on that the teacher has a troubling problem on her hands: one of her charges has told the other girls that she’s in love- with her cousin. And it’s through these eager, youthful letters from Kurt to Annemarie that we get to know the background to their crush. This forbidden love and its resolution becomes one of the subplots of the novel which most intrigued me- it’s transgressive in a way different from the love affair which develops between Veit and Margot, a married woman, and one of the most striking things about it is the uproar it causes. Yet it’s also one of the many examples in the novel not just of the huge generation gap, but of how the older generation have no understanding or compassion for the younger. Annemarie’s mother is not only shocked and disapproving of her daughter’s feelings, but most concerned about how this immoral situation will reflect on her. This is a young girl very badly let down by the adults who are in charge.

There is a cyclical feel to the novel as towards the end of 1944 Veit finally acknowledges he can’t extend his sick leave any further. He goes back to barracks in Vienna and is sent off to the North East. He’s matured, he can keep his PTSD at bay and is taking less Pervitin to do so, and has developed a loving relationship with Margot and her baby. What becomes of the characters is summarised in an Afterword at the end of the novel.

There is much to admire in this novel. I felt it showed well how communities and individuals are changed by the experience of war, while their daily life continues. I liked the detailed and recurrent accounts of the physical and psychological trauma suffered by Veit Kolbe. I liked the gulf between Nazi propaganda and the reality of the imminent defeat, explored often in confrontations between the young and the old, and for me so relevant to political discourse today. But the novel did not get to me on an emotional level like, say Ralf Rothmann’s To Die in Spring, whose young protagonist is also enduring the end of the war. It’s as if the larger canvas involves sacrificing the level of intimate intensity so powerful in Ralf Rothmann’s book. And the simple syntax of the book’s beginning, presumably reflecting the hesitant penmanship of the young writer, also meant the book took a while to get into and hindered an immediate emotional connection. And what about the female characters? Both Margot and the teacher had interesting stories to tell and could have been given a voice. Nevertheless the novel has been meticulously researched to give a sobering account of the devastation of Europe, as well as the view from a small Austrian village, and so adds to the canon of literature on the Second World War.

 

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Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

This brilliant novel- the first written in English by Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli- is right up there with Milkman in my personal canon, for the way it approaches terrible, crushing human experiences through imaginative fiction and moves us at a most profound level. It’s a road novel on the face of it, the main narrative telling the story of a family of four travelling from New York across the US to the last home of the Apache Indians in Arizona. Interwoven with this is a narrative about the children travelling from Central America and crossing the Mexican border to enter the US. With its focus on the activity of documentation and its inter textuality it plays with ideas of fiction and non- fiction, making the reader aware of our expectations of a narrative, of storytelling at the same time as we pray for the characters, muttering under our breath please, please, please make it alright.

This is a novel whose characters come alive from the very beginning. Narrated by the young woman who’s the mother of the family ( we don’t know their names, though they adopt family nicknames later on) we learn that she’s been together with the father for about four years. They met on a project in New York, recording the soundscapes of the city. He’s more of an acoustemologist, his equipment of boom pole, mic and headphones part of his persona throughout the book, whereas she’s more interested in the sounds of human communication and tracks the vast number of languages spoken in New York. They fall in love and move in together, he with his son, whose mother died shortly after his birth, she with her daughter whose father she’s split up from. They reform as a family with their own routines, habits, language and humour. Through her work at the New York City Immigration Court the mother meets Manuela, whose two daughters have travelled from Southern Mexico to the US/ Mexican border to join her. They’d been taken by a coyote (people smuggler) as far as the desert, where they were picked up by the Border Patrol and taken to a Detention Centre. From there they’re applying for legal entry to the States.

The idea for their journey comes from the husband. As the soundscape project comes to an end he’s become interested in the last Apache Indians and wants to visit the Chiricahua mountains where they lived, to make sound recordings there. This isn’t compatible with the narrator’s work with the refugee children in the New York courts, and the plan is that they’ll make the six week journey together, and that he’ll then stay with the boy in Arizona while she returns to New York with the girl. It’s apparent from the start of the journey that their relationship is at a low point- the narrative is peppered with squabbles and disagreements- and we know that in all likelihood they’ll separate. Yet they’re engaged and attentive parents and the journey through different states, landscapes,  motel rooms is made bearable for the children through stories, songs, games and jokes. And for the boy (who at 10 has a window on that adult world) there’s his Polaroid camera. He takes a bit of time to learn how it works, but then he becomes a documentarist- or documentarian- like his parents. His collection of photographs are on display at the back of the book.

The activity of documenting is a key part of the book. The family are travelling with seven archive boxes in their boot, four for the husband, one for the narrator, and, because they felt they wanted one too, one each for the children- which are empty. The novel is loosely structured around these archive boxes, with some sections headed up Box 111 for example, and prefaced with a list of the contents, mainly books for the adults. Some of these appear in the main narrative, some were more familiar to me than others and appear later in the book. So the adults discuss Lord of the Flies with the boy and there are echoes of what happens in that text later on. (There is a very helpful note by the author at the end of the book about referencing, including the contents of the Archive Boxes, which would illuminate a second reading). And sound, the documentation of sound, and song is important too. The family are heading for a place called Echo Valley, which plays a key role in the plot later on and words, references and sounds bounce back and forth across the book like echoes in that valley.

More generally, though, the omnipresence of the Archive boxes -and that boom pole-all contribute to a debate about truth and fiction in the novel. On the one hand the narrator may be Valeria Luiselli herself- readers will know from her previous book Tell me how it ends that she translated for child refugees in the New York courts- so this may be autofiction, that hybrid entity between fiction and non fiction. There’s also a question about whether we can ever capture reality, what really happened in the past to the Apaches, or what’s happening to the Lost Children at the Mexico Border right now, through documentation. It’s as if those Archive Boxes are big, but what’s happened in those two dreadful situations is much bigger. There’s also the element of story telling. The novel doesn’t play on the human craving for stories, like for example Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, but the writer certainly knows how to keep her readers engaged. As the journey progresses and we get closer and closer to the characters I found myself wanting the parents to stay together, a kind of Happy End, and as the children’s story takes over I was desperate for it to end well. And when the boy and girl see a name and phone number sewn into the collar of one of the Lost Children, I thought please please let it be one of Manuela’s daughters.Only to feel silly shortly afterwards when its pointed out that every refugee child has the name of their mum or auntie in the States sewn into their collar.

There’s a book in the narrator’s Archive Box which forms a kind of bridge to the second section of the book, narrated by the boy. The book is called Elegies for Lost Children and is a series of texts about a group of children travelling to the Mexican/ US border. This is a harrowing account of the dangers and deprivations of that journey-of travelling on the roof of the train called la bestia, of being beaten and exploited by the coyotes, of being hungry, cold and brutalised. The narrator reads sections aloud to the boy and records herself reading the texts aloud too. The boy knows his mother is intensely engaged with this book and the events it describes and this leads to the last section of the book, narrated by the boy. It would spoil to go into detail about what happens, but as the two stories merge, that merger replicated brilliantly in the sentence structure itself, I felt I was being drawn into another world, into a different level of consciousness, into another dimension. Reading the author’s note  on references at the end helped to explain the effect this had on me. This is powerful writing indeed.

So this is a complex and multi layered novel- but readers should not be put off by that. There’s a clear central story, well told, with engaging characters and familiar-and familial- problems and we want to know  what happens in the end. The dream-like, surreal quality of the narrative when the two stories merge is absolutely compelling and transporting. And the last section, narrated by the boy for the girl reduced me to tears- he’s referring back to their shared love of David Bowie’s song Space Oddity and the roles of Ground Control and Major Tom they took on when singing along in the car. The song’s other worldly tone, the dialogue between the two as one leaves the earth, the play on words with Odyssey- it’s all there, and for someone of my generation it triggers a huge wave of nostalgia too. The book has been spinning round in my head ever since, its ideas and emotions triggering echoes and connections. And of course it offers us a deep insight into the terrible plight of the refugee children travelling across the Mexican border. Thank you so much, Valeria Luiselli.

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Gilgi, eine von uns- by Irmgard Keun- a cautionary tale?

Gilgi, eine von uns, Irmgard Keun’s first novel, published in 1931, tells the story of 21 year old Gilgi, a dynamic young working class woman living in Cologne in the late 20s/ early 30s. It was very much of its time with its essentially urban setting and innovative in that it focuses on the lives of the Angestellte class- the office workers and employees whose work oiled the wheels of the great city. But it also caused a stir with its portrayal of a financially independent, sexually active young woman, who cared nothing for women’s supposed desire for marriage and motherhood- Gilgi’s airy disregard for these conventions both amused me and at times took my breath away, even today.

The book opens with Gilgi leaping out of bed on an ordinary working day and we’re immediately engaged by the sheer energy of the woman: she exercises, showers- cold because she’s tough- and rushes downstairs for a quick breakfast with her family, the Krons. We see their sitting room through her eyes, the antimacassers with their clichéd sayings Trautes Heim, Glück Allein, the portrait of Washington on the wall, all emphasising their cosy family values. In the tram to work she describes the glum silent faces of the other passengers and wonders about the man with the bright yellow tie, the woman with dyed hair, those few who show signs of wanting a little more out of life, a little pleasure, a moment of joy, as she does. Gilgi works as a typist for a company making stockings and knitwear. She enjoys her job, especially the financial independence it gives her, and manages to circumvent the unwanted attentions of her boss Herr Reuter with wit and ingenuity. In fact so keen is she to build up her nest egg that she takes on an additional evening job of writing up the memoirs of a retired officer while fitting in several language classes at Berlitz.

Her friendships are a big part of her life: we meet beautiful, chaotic, sensual Olga and Pit, the socialist autodidact who plays piano in seedy pubs to make ends meet. Both characters are developed in depth, unlike the occasional lovers Gilgi’s had till now or the older men who become figures of fun for the two young women. But then Gilgi meets Martin and her life is turned upside down. It doesn’t happen overnight. Though she’s attracted to him from the beginning and they soon fall into a passionate sexual relationship, she attempts to maintain her previous life, running between her job, her parents’ house, her evening job and Martin, but she soon finds she can’t do it all and moves in with him. Now Martin is a very different character from her: he’s older, he’s travelled and seen the world, he’s a writer, but what he writes and whether he earns any money from it is left unclear. (Later on we find out he’s living on money borrowed from his brother). He’s extravagant, impulsive, disorganised and likes the high life which he absolutely can’t pay for, and in all of this diametrically opposed to Gilgi with her disciplined daily routines, careful savings and dreams of travelling with her hard earned money.

Gradually Martin comes to dominate Gilgi. It starts with infantilising her, calling her Gilgichen, his narrative voice dwelling on her dainty diminutive beauty. Then he says he wishes she’d give up work, so she’s available 24 hours for him. He wants to educate her, for her to leave behind her popular reading tastes in favour of the literature he considers suitable (though he’s too chaotic to actually carry this out). And as Gilgi bit by bit sheds aspects of her former life, succumbing to his power, I felt almost as chilled as listening to Helen’s story in the Archers-isn’t this an example of 1930s coercive control?

As Gilgi yields her independence to Martin, the tone of the novel darkens generally. The desperate worry about unemployment and its consequences for the working classes emerges as a theme, both at Gilgi’s workplace but more importantly in the story of Hans, a former boyfriend, who’s jobless with a wife and two small children. There is violence on the streets- reference is made to fights between Nazis and Socialists. And the plot itself leads Gilgi into a very dark place where she has to make some difficult and life changing decisions.

Though the book can be read as a cautionary tale against falling in love, there’s much more to this short but powerful novel. It’s a fantastic portrayal of the respectable working class of the time. It offers us a great range of female characters and identities: we see women at work, women who are sexually active outside marriage, women who are financially independent, all of which runs counter to the later Nazi narrative of women’s realm being  Kinder, Kirche, Küche. There’s some clever plotting which takes us by surprise, and its wit and lively, upbeat pace makes for a compelling and entertaining read.

A new English translation, Gilgi one of us, is coming out in December this year, 2019, in the lovely Penguin Modern Classics edition. (I don’t know who’s translated it, but I’m intrigued to know what they’ll do with that Cologne dialect). I’d recommend this book to any reader interested in Germany in the 30s, in representations of women at that time, or indeed in the work of the fascinating Irmgard Keun. And to those who’d like an introduction to her work I’d recommend Ursula Krechel’s essay Anstiftung zur Kühnheit.

 

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Geistergeschichte- Ghost Story- by Laura Freudenthaler

The Austrian writer Laura Freudenthaler has just been awarded a European Literature Prize 2019 for Geistergeschichte. This slim, subtle, novel is not a ghost story in a conventional sense, but rather a study of a middle aged woman losing her grip on reality while her marriage is breaking down. She senses her husband is having an affair, and it is the imagined presence of his lover in their flat, walking across the floorboards, sleeping in her bed, which provides the unnerving, haunting presence of the ‘other’ in her life.

The desolation of their twenty year marriage is apparent from the start: Thomas comes home, creeps silently into his room and closes the door, without looking for or calling out to his wife, Anne, framed against the living room window. This physical separateness, the closing of doors, is emblematic of a relationship in which both partners have come to lead separate lives. Thomas goes off for weekends and days at a time without saying where he’s going and Anne no longer accompanies him to social events he attends in his guise as film director/ festival organiser ( I was never quite sure what his job was). To begin with, we think this is just long term relationship drift, but Anne begins to think he’s having an affair and das Mädchen enters her life.

The narrative is told almost entirely from Anne’s point of view. She is a pianist and piano teacher and as the story starts, it’s the end of term and she’s looking forward to a sabbatical year. One or two of her private piano lessons are described in some detail and her insistence on correct hand position, posture and a crisp distinction between notes is echoed in the crisp, short, correct sentence structure, which struck me especially at the beginning of the book. At the same time, those short, factual sentences seem to work, as in her previous work, Die Königin schweigt, almost to contain emotion, to leave things unsaid. We know Anne is a feeling person: though she’s a demanding teacher, she’s thoughtful and empathetic towards her young pupils, and in her own life has a tender relationship with her mother who lives back in France- I was quite moved by her impulse to just get on a train to spend Sunday with her.

Anne has a plan for her sabbatical: she’ll spend the mornings working on her idea for a textbook and the afternoons on her own piano playing. She starts off working in cafes and there is much pleasing detail about the cafes and their clientele- though Anne here too begins to feel apart from other people as they return to work after lunch. The plan sort of disintegrates as Anne’s suspicions about the affair grow and her hands no longer work as they used to at the piano. She changes tack, buys a rucksack and sensible walking shoes and spends the days wandering through the city, into areas unknown to her. Returning to the flat and  silence- with the occasional perfunctory enquiry from Thomas about how her work is going- when he’s there.

The first glimmers of the presence of das Mädchen begin when Anne senses her sort of wafting out of her husband’s mobile phone. She senses her in the flat, hearing her in the walls and scuttling across the floor. At first, we attribute these sensations to her imagination and unhappy state. But then, Anne begins to fantasise Thomas’ meetings with das Mädchen, their dates in cafes and restaurants. She systematically goes through his pockets for receipts, seeing any purchase as evidence of their affair. Through clever writing the narrative perspective changes even within the paragraph so that das Mädchen enters the story as an independent protagonist and we begin to believe in her as real. As das Mädchen moves into the narrative space we begin to ask ourselves the usual questions: what does she see in a man old enough to be her father? And das Mädchen, like Anne, has a Freundin, who both nurtures and acts as sounding board, like the best woman friends do.

For me, the brilliance of this novel was as much about the depiction of a declining long term relationship as about the clever fudging of fantasy and reality. The writer deftly conveys the aching sadness of this 50 year old woman, whose husband has no interest in sharing her life. She visits her mother in France at Christmas alone and at Easter shoves a half eaten Osterhase into her rucksack before going off for a walk alone. She’s also separated by her language- Thomas has never bothered to learn French and she’s aware that the German she speaks is his, Thomas’, German. It’s as if her personality has been subsumed in his.

The question for me at the end was whether a relationship can ever come back from this? There is a shift towards a resolution at the end, but it’s just a suggestion, and may be as phantasmagoric as much of Anne’s imaginings. This is a clever, subtle and moving book and very deserving of its prize.

 

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The Years by Annie Ernaux

This life of a woman born in France in 1941 is set against a backdrop of social and political development and change from the post war years right up to the early 21st century. Through personal and collective memories, descriptions of photos, adverts and references to popular culture, she combines individual with collective experience to evoke the lived dimension of history. The result is a fabulous narrative arc which is deeply compelling as we recognise changes which have impacted on our own lives, yet also fascinating in its portrayal of a life rooted specifically in France with its particular history and collective memory.

The narrative is free flowing but punctuated by accounts of conversations at family meals which reveal the preoccupations of the adults at the time. So in the post war period the older generation come back again and again to memories of the privations of the Occupation, but this topic gives way with time to, for example, an interest in the younger generation, the ‘student’ narrator who is the only family member to study in the 50s. The family meals become a focus for the narrator’s growing awareness of her education taking her away from her class background. We’re told early on that her family only discuss things they had seen and could re-live while eating and drinking….not the Jewish children boarding trains for Auschwitz, nor the bodies of starvation victims collected every morning from the Warsaw ghetto. When returning for family meals as a student she decides not to say much about her studies- her family lives in a closed world that was no longer ours.

Photographs of the narrator as a child, with family and friends, are described in intimate detail and act as a kind of pause button in the text, inviting us to look deeply at the captured image. The descriptions of facial expression, gesture and posture give us a sense of the emotion at that moment, from carefree toddler to self conscious teenager, to stylish young mother. They act too as a trigger for reflections on age and relationships. The 1999 photo on the beach at Trouville with her sons: two women and two men stand in a tight little group. The four faces are pressed close to each other, each divided into zones of darkness and light by the sun, which slants down from the left….She has the gentle distant smile of parents or teachers accustomed to having their picture taken with young people. And the 2006 photo: The woman’s hands in the foreground, the joints pronounced, almost gnarled, appear oversized. Her smile, her way of staring into the lens and holding the child, express an attitude that is less one of possession than of offering, as one might see in a photo of generational transfer- grandmother presents granddaughter, an establishment of filiation.

The social changes experienced by the narrator are immense and emblematic for a whole generation of women. Sexuality is of course a theme and Annie Ernaux describes well the desire and longings of adolescence and the first fumbling sexual experiences as well as the illegal abortions endured by so many women at that time. The narrator becomes a young wife and mother, juggling the demands of work and family, fulfilling the role of the modern woman as seen by women’s magazines. But she has no time for herself, to read or write, and, sick of the role of the wife, in the 80s separates from her husband to live independently with the freedom to take lovers.

She charts the growing importance of consumerism in shaping our lives. First, there’s the arrival of new things-the gas cooker, the formica table- and the desire simply to possess them, facilitated by the growing use of cheque books and credit. She claims that the profusion of things acted to conceal the scarcity of ideas and the erosion of beliefs. But she is also good on how things altered human behaviour, so how the transistor radio prefigured the Walkman in allowing you to be alone but not alone and have at ones command the noise and diversity of the world. She describes the growing importance of style and taste in furniture and decor for the young married couple, not least in signalling class and status. She notes how consumerism changes the landscape with interminable warehouses and superstores lining the autoroute outside cities,  and the hegemony of the spacious, attractive and spotlessly clean places where merchandise is bought over the bleakness of metro stations, the post office and the public lyceés.

The narrator’s lived experience of political events begins with 68: her heady accounts of student occupations and sit ins, of the unprecedented warmth, camaraderie and conversations between people of quite different backgrounds conveys the newness of those days and the rupture with the past. She subsequently describes the hopes and disappointments of her generation of progressive intellectuals in her account of the achievements of a range of presidents from Giscard through Mitterand to Chirac, culminating in the unforeseen rise of the National Front and the ignominy of having to vote for Chirac to ward off Le Pen. She watches international events too: the fall of the Berlin wall, the break up of the former Yugoslavia and of course 9/11-all from the perspective of the educated French intellectual, seeing the conflict in the former Yugoslavia as a backward step with the return of religion and intolerance.  And we see through her experience of the Algerian struggle for independence from France evolving attitudes towards the immigrants from North Africa who came to live in the banlieues, taking French citizenship and challenging existing ideas of what it is to be French.

Through much of the narrative the personal pronoun ‘we’ is used in the translation: I haven’t seen the original but assume this is translating the French ‘on’. This works well to convey the collective generational experience, but once or twice I felt ‘surely everyone didn’t think that!’ And at times I wanted to have some more of her feelings for her family: did she feel love for her husband, what about her feelings on the birth of her babies? Yet there were other moments when I was moved by flashes of the personal: the image of her father’s body being brought downstairs in the unbearable part of memory, the discreet watching over her teenage sons’ behaviour and silences, like our mothers did with us.

The book begins with the words all the images will disappear and a series of random images of photos, posters, film clips, images from these years. It ends with another series of images and the words to save something from the time where we will never be again.In this skilful interweaving of the personal and collective experience Annie Ernaux has created a powerful chronicle of what it was to be a woman in 20th century post war France which will endure.

 

 

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Voices from Chernobyl- Svetlana Alexievich

I often thought that the simple fact, the mechanical fact, is no closer to the truth than a vague feeling, rumor, vision. Why repeat the facts- they cover up our feelings. The development of these feelings, the spilling of these feelings past the facts, is what fascinates me. And so, in the mid nineties, Svetlana Alexievich spent three years travelling through Belarus and Ukraine, interviewing people who’d been affected by the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl, to try to elicit these feelings, to help uncover how this catastrophe had impacted on their lives and how they felt about it some years on. The result is a polyphony of voices, both solo and in chorus, very much in the style of Svetlana Alexievich’s other oral histories, like The Unwomanly Face of War. Across the range of voices and experiences it’s an account of the devastation caused by the accident at Chernobyl. And through the survivors’ testimonies another theme emerges: that of the Soviet system, its values and belief systems, which contributed at many different levels to the scale of the tragedy.

The idea of polyphony is reflected in the structure of the book. A series of monologues and choruses is book ended by two of the most harrowing accounts of death, both by young women who lose their beloved husbands in the catastrophe. In the first, the husband was a firefighter who attended the fire at the reactor in the early hours of April 26th when the accident happened. He subsequently died a horrible death in a Moscow hospital a few days later. In the second and last interview, the wife of a construction worker, working at the site as a liquidator, tells of her husband’s dreadful disfigurement and death as a result of radiation sickness. In both accounts, the depth of their love for their husbands comes through, their anguish at the suffering they witness, their profound sense of loss and the emptiness of their future.

There are many accounts of the pain of evacuation: the inhabitants of Pripyat, the nearby town which serviced the reactor, had to leave in buses at very short notice. One man says  the one thing he wanted to take with him was his door. They had a family tradition of laying their dead on the door- they’d laid his father out there. It also had notches showing how he’d grown as a lad and his son after him. He wasn’t allowed to take it, but came back a fortnight later and carried it off on his motorbike. What he hadn’t expected was that they’d be laying his little daughter out on it some time later. People who left were resettled elsewhere, but were known to be from Chernobyl and ostracised; children were shunned by others at school fearing contamination. Many couldn’t bear to be away from their homes and returned to live there. These re-settlers lived hand to mouth, often lonely, living in evacuated and abandoned villages, tolerated by the authorities.

Then there are the accounts given by a range of people drafted in shortly after the accident to help limit the damage: construction workers, army reservists, soldiers, many of them pulled out of other jobs to work there. There are accounts of highly dangerous activity, for example, the clearing of radioactive debris from the roof- and some tasks which I just hadn’t imagined- like the removing of a layer of radioactive topsoil to be buried in secure concrete underground pits. ( Which weren’t secure concrete structures at all in the end, just dug out pits).  Fear of radioactive contamination didn’t seem to feature in these accounts, the workers saying they simply went along with their orders, encouraged by the idea that they were doing something heroic and necessary for their country, something patriotic, in these times the Russian shows how great he is. How unique. We’ll never be Dutch or German. And never have proper asphalt or manicured lawns. But there’ll always be plenty of heroes.

This sense of heroism recurs throughout the monologues and, combined with more general bravado and plain ignorance, led to many liquidators sent to the Exclusion Zone just not making use of the scant safety equipment. One account tells how after a while reservists began picking plums from the trees, ate fish and swam in the river. And this carelessness worked well for the bosses, who got the liquidators to endanger themselves even more by offering them staggeringly high rates of pay for the most dangerous activities, while providing hopelessly inadequate safety equipment and fiddling the records of radiation they were receiving.

Towards the latter half of the book we read the testimonies of the Communist Party apparatchiks and the scientists. The truth is that the regional Communist Party leaders were hopelessly out of their depth- they weren’t scientists, so didn’t understand the dangers of radioactive contamination and were desperately trying to convince the population and the world that they had everything under control. Attending the May Day parade in Kiev shortly after the accident was seen as a necessary show of confidence and solidarity, despite the dangerously high levels of radioactivity in the city. Equally disturbing is the testimony of some scientists, sent into the Zone to measure levels of radiation, and finding people with thyroid levels sometimes 2-300 times the norm. When asking their superiors what they should then do, they were told ‘take your measurements and watch television’. So that’s what they did.

Several scientists and technicians reflect in the interviews on this lack of reaction to the high levels of radiation. This was an era when nuclear physics was one of the most prestigious areas of activity in the Soviet Union. It was unthinkable that something could go that wrong. Like other citizens, the scientists also had an unshakeable faith in the Soviet system and communism, so they kept quiet and followed orders, even when they were horrified at their findings. They also had an absolute belief in the collective experience and were unused to making any decisions on their own- so how were they going to go out on a limb and tell the truth about the measurements? There is some poignant testimony where they are quietly reflecting on the actions they took, or failed to take, at the time.

Estimates are that the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station caused 4,000 deaths and several thousand cases of thyroid cancer. In Belarus, just north of Chernobyl, 2 million people of a population of 10 million are living on contaminated land. Details of the technical causes of the accident will be found elsewhere, but these voices are moving testimony to the lived experience of victims and survivors- and to the culture of cronyism, laziness and a deep- seated indifference towards the general population.

In some ways, the Chernobyl catastrophe seems a part of history. When  I visited the excellent Chernobyl museum in Kiev this summer, the newspaper cuttings and film footage seemed to belong to a different era. And we know that the dawning realisation of the role of the Soviet authorities in the cover up and denial of the tragedy contributed to the break up of the Soviet Union only a few years later. Yet while reading this book, the accounts of completely inadequate safety equipment made me wonder how we’re placed in the UK. How many protective suits do we have in case of an accident at Sellafield? How many masks? What about hospital beds in these time of NHS shortages? How would we deal with it?

The 1997 US Picador edition, translated by Keith Gessen, which I read, has been followed by a second revised edition, brought out in 2016 by Penguin, translated by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait. I read the US edition because I had it on my bookshelf, given me by a friend after the author won the Nobel Prize in 2015. I found the translation excellent and the translator’s preface helpful: the second edition may contain updated and additional material. Whichever you read you’ll be moved, sometimes to tears, by these voices.

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On the Red Hill by Mike Parker

Mike Parker and his partner, Peredur, are overwhelmed when they discover that their elderly friends, George and Reg, have bequeathed their beautiful house in mid- Wales, Rhiw Goch, to them. They had in fact been caring for their friends during their long, sad illnesses, had got to know and love Rhiw Goch, and hoped to buy it when George and Reg died. The generous gift of the house meant that they were able financially to make the changes to the house they wanted- but it also had the symbolic force of further strengthening the bond of friendship they felt for Reg and George. This book is a moving tribute to their friendship, but also, with Rhiw Goch at its centre, a history of the house, of rural mid Wales, and of gay relationships in Wales and England. The book is wide ranging and multi faceted: the initial draw for me, when I first came across it in the Cletwr community shop, was the aspect of memoir,immediately apparent in the striking black and white photos of the handsome couple, Reg and George. But then, as a newcomer to rural life myself,I became entranced by Mike Parker’s wonderfully detailed nature writing and his knowledge about the history, mythology and landscape of Wales spoke to my own search for my Welsh roots.

Reg and George had lived at Rhiw Goch from the mid 70s: it was their third house in rural Wales, and like the others, they’d been running it as a guest house. When Mike and Peredur took it over it was stuffed with books, diaries, letters and photos from which Mike was able to reconstruct their earlier lives. They’d met in London but their relationship really took off post second World War in Bournemouth, where George ran a photographic studio and Reg worked in a gentlemen’s outfitters. The author describes the post war period as being relatively liberal for gay men- it was the return of a Tory government in 1951 when they really cracked down – and this was a halcyon period for George and Reg, enjoying outings to the beach, picnics in the country with friends and, later, trips to the Continent, much of this recorded in photos showing a radiant couple pulsing with sunshine and lust. It was a legacy from Reg’s father, and George’s desire for a change, which brought them to Wales in the early 70s and to a new career. It was Reg’s role to clean and cook in the guest house- and the comments from guests indicate he excelled at this-but he was also a gifted gardener. George meanwhile ran the business side of things. Always fascinated by the body beautiful, he also rediscovered his love of cycling and proudly sported his trim and tanned physique on the hills of Wales well into his eighties.

The author tells their stories with sensitivity and a light touch: he is honest at admitting some discomfort in George’s predilection for the beautiful young men who modelled for him and often became his lovers- was there some manipulation involved here? While it’s clear that George was the more dominant partner, he also questions whether George held Reg back and actively discouraged his other friendships: several people notice Reg’s increased cheerfulness and confidence in his last few years when George is in a home and Reg can run his own life. Reg he describes as acutely sensitive, always aware of his difference, not just in his sexuality, but also in his Polish- German ancestry, in his stammer and his dyslexia. While he struggled to express himself in writing, he was a talented artist and often drew cards and pictures for others- a talent which was not encouraged by George. Reg embodies the element of air- it is playful, flirtatious, quick and light. It is in the east, the dawn and the morning; in spring and youth. In all of these, it is Reg, that high-flying kite of a man bringing joy and colour to the skies.

The association of Reg with the element of air in fact forms part of the book’s structure: divided into four quarters, and starting with the new beginnings of spring, each section is based on a season, a compass bearing, an element and one of the four men. So there is a real cyclical feeling to the book which takes hold of you as you read on, the cycle of the seasons being replicated in the cycle of life, the death of Reg and George at the beginning giving way to the new life breathed in to Rhiw Goch. It also allows for Mike Parker’s beautiful observation of nature to be tied in to the seasons: so we have in spring the soon-to-bud blackthorn blossom, tight little snowballs in a crown of black spikes…. the inflorescent buds of the hazels, miniscule flamenco skirts in a shameless pink.  And his appreciation of winter: I like its clear sightlines and uncluttered horizons, even its muted palette. When the prevailing complexion is grey, and for months on end, the eye soon learns to focus and feast on the tiniest nuance: the tinctures of purple, pink or gold that briefly smudge the damp sky at either end of the day; the distant fields and hilltops that blush suddenly with sunshine and go out.

The cyclical structure is one expression of the sense of time passing which runs through the book. From the beginning we are made aware of Wales’ ancient prehistory which provides a kind of deep bedrock to the landscape and the Welsh consciousness. Opposite Rhiw Goch, on the other side of the valley, stands the seven foot stone, Carreg Noddfa, the Stone of Sanctuary. This stone, together with two others, provides a triangle of territory which acted as a place of safety and sanctuary from persecution in the pre- Norman era and in later times. The author often comes back to the idea of noddfa in the book, and this is just one example of his interweaving of history and landscape. I also liked his narrative of Rhiw Goch’s own history, relating the changing ownership and change of use, essentially the selling off of the land and the changing fortunes of farming, as he beats the bounds of the property as it stood in the 1845 tithe map.

But the other history which is related here is more of a social history, namely that of the gay community in rural areas and here too, Mike Parker excels at conveying social change. Some of this is told through the experiences of the four main characters and he brings out well the different attitudes to their sexuality  held by the two generations. He references the lives and experiences of other well known gay writers and thinkers: Edward Carpenter at Millthorpe near Sheffield, E. M. Forster whose only openly gay novel, Maurice, was published posthumously. The author also traces gay life and homophobia in Wales specifically, citing the lesbian couple known as the Ladies of Llangollen and, at the other end of the spectrum, the appalling case in Abergavenny in 1942 when 24 men were charged with criminal offences, some on trumped up evidence. 14 were sentenced with up to 10 years’ penal servitude, one defendant killed himself, two tried and failed, and one even had suicide added to his charge sheet. Since then and with legalisation in the 1967 Act, attitudes have thankfully changed: Mike Parker relates that though he received some horrible reactions to his candidature for Plaid Cymru in 2015, almost none were to do with his sexuality. And, like Francis Lee, director of God’ s Own Country, he is clear that there is no more homophobia in the countryside than anywhere else.

This is a deeply personal book: not only is the author one of the protagonists, but he is also searingly honest about some aspects of his own life. He writes about the miseries of his own upbringing- the bullying and the humiliation- but is also frank about having some initial misgivings about moving to Rhiw Goch and occasional feelings of dislocation/ loss of identity when thoughts of the busy city streets ambush him in the impenetrable dark of the rural night. Such thoughts will ambush me but they pass. I’ve found this immensely helpful. And I won’t be able to pass the ash tree on the lane near us again, standing proud against the horizon, without thinking of its gangly outline and Gothic pallor, its grey geometric bark and gentle-giant solidity. This is a wonderfully rich text, as varied and layered as the geological strata of Wales itself. It will speak to many readers.

Posted in Books and Travel, Books in English, History, Memoir, Nature Writing, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments