The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, translated by Anne McLean-a Colombian story?

This is a story of informers and betrayal. Set in the Colombia of 1991, the narrative goes back to the Second World War and Colombia’s role as a place of refuge for Europeans of every political hue: German Jewish escapees from Nazi Europe as well as Nazi sympathisers. When the United States joined the Allied side after Pearl Harbour in 1941 they put increasing pressure on the Colombian government to round up their resident Germans, which they did by means of a notorious blacklist. This is the story of how a particular family were affected by this list and the act of betrayal which put them there. But the novel also explores informing and betrayal in a wider sense: what constitutes informing, the motives behind our betrayals and their consequences.

The novel begins with the narrator, Gabriel, visiting his 67 year old father in his Bogotá apartment after a period of estrangement. His father, Gabriel Santoro, is a lawyer well known for his seminars on Judicial Oratory in the Supreme Court. We find out that the estrangement is connected with the book his son wrote, A Life in Exile, about their family friend, Sara Guterman, leaving Germany with her family and settling in Colombia, but are told little more at this point. During the visit the narrator’s father tells him that he has a blocked artery and needs urgent medical treatment or he may die. He goes in for treatment, survives the operation and recovers at home, cared for by the narrator, their friend, Sara, and the physiotherapist Angelina.

The intimate tone of this introduction draws us into the characters and their relationships:we see his father’s flat through Gabriel’s eyes, the yellow drops of urine on the toilet seat and floor, the Alka- Seltzer and rusty shaving brush in the drawer. The aftermath of the operation, the physical invasion of the body by tubes and catheters continues this picture of fragility and vulnerability, so that when Gabriel Santoro recovers we can feel his enormous sense of relief and gratitude that he has been granted a second life- and the theme of reinventing oneself and second lives recurs in different and interesting ways later in the novel. So reinvigorated is Gabriel that he starts an affair with Angelina, the physiotherapist, and they go off to Medellín for a short break together.

The narrative then switches focus to the interviews with Sara Guterman which formed the basis for the narrator’s book, A Life in Exile. We learn about the family’s difficult journey from Emmerich in Germany and their eventual settling in Duitama where her father, Peter Guterman, opens a hotel, the Hotel Nueva Europa. This hotel becomes a sort of gathering place for Europeans and Colombians alike, a melting pot where the wishes of the management- bitte, leave your politics at reception– are respected, at least at first. And a frequent visitor to the hotel during the 30s is the young Gabriel Santoro, a law student in Bogotá who makes a habit of spending his weekends down there and befriends the other residents, in particular Enrique Deresser. As the US tightens its hold on Colombian politics and insists on the compilation of the lists, Enrique’s father, Konrad, ends up on the list and it is through his story that we see the devastation this causes: his assets are frozen, his business goes bust, his marriage breaks down and he loses everything. It is clear that while some listed people were paid up Nazi sympathisers- we meet one such in the novel- many others are innocent or harmless and end up there there as a result of someone informing, an act of betrayal.

The narrator learns from Sara that his father was implicated in the betrayal of Konrad Deresser and some time later goes to Medellín to meet with Enrique Deresser. He finds out more about the consequences of the betrayal for the next generation- and also, chillingly, for his own father.

The narrative is brilliantly plotted and well controlled : we are informed partially and in stages about the events it describes. We are given sufficient background historical detail but it is Gabriel Vasquez’s powers of characterisation and storytelling which flesh out, deepen and bring home to us the impact of the historical events: the rifts between father and son caused by language and cultural difference in the Deresser family, the loosening of the power of religious symbols in the life of Sara, issues explored in all their complexity and subtlety. And as events unfold it is suggested that informing and betrayal are not restricted to Gabriel Santoro giving away his friend: isn’t Angelina’s appearance on a TV chat show exposing details of her relationship with Gabriel a form of betrayal? And the furtive copying of a letter without permission by the journalist narrator at the end feels like a betrayal not only of Enrique but of us the readers!

And is this propensity for betrayal something particularly  Colombian? After all, the narrator learns of his father’s disapproval of his book through a ‘chain of breaches of confidence, which in Colombia is so efficient when it comes to damaging someone‘.  Certainly the repercussions of the betrayal- a shocking moment of violence in the book- are echoed in the larger scale violence at Centro 93 and Los Elefantes, killings which happened during La Violencia, the years of violence, also referred to in the book. Whether we choose to read the act of betrayal strictly within the Colombian context or as a more generalised human tendency, this novel explores the topic with consummate skill. In a clear and pitch perfect translation by Anne McLean, the novel is a compelling and thought provoking tour de force by the brilliant Juan Gabriel Vásquez and an essential read for anyone interested in contemporary literature coming out of South America.

 

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Paula by Sandra Hoffmann- A family memoir.

This is a memoir about the life of the narrator’s grandmother, Paula. We know from the Paulabeginning that Paula’s main feature was her silence, a silence which was not a neutral state of peace and quiet, but was experienced by the narrator as an angry, overpowering act of concealment swelling to fill the space and eventually poisoning the relationship between the narrator and her grandmother. Paula was silent on many things but it was her silence about the identity of her daughter’s father, the narrator’s grandfather, which caused the narrator most anguish in her childhood and adolescence and affected family relationships into the next generation.

Because of her silence, we are told, any account of Paula’s life may not be reliable: the process of investigation and uncovering becomes a theme in itself and results are inevitably incomplete, piecemeal and possibly fictitious. The narrator tells us she will listen to the voices of the women in her family to tell Paula’s story. An analysand, she knows that images from dreams creep up on us in no particular order by day and catch us unawares. So the narrative is composed of the narrator’s own memories of Paula, anecdotes from others, accounts of conversations and some brisk biographical details. This provides for a variation of tone which is welcome: the intensity of the teenage narrator’s fury with her grandmother, followed immediately by her feelings of bottomless guilt would be hard to bear if not relieved by the banality of the family chat which comes just afterwards.

One of the narrator’s sources is a large and uncatalogued collection of photographs found in Paula’s drawer after her death. The narrator scrutinises these to see what Paula was like as a young woman- did she laugh, love, have fun, know joy? She speculates on her relationships with the young men in the photos, their names unknown. The narrator is aware she looks different from others in her family- her hair is black and wiry- as does her mother, das anmutige dunkelhäutige Mädchen -the graceful, dark-skinned girl. Could one of these men be her grandfather, the father of her mother?  No-one wants to speak about it, Tante Maria and Onkel Gustl dismissing the absent grandfather as a Zigeuner – a gypsy.

We are told early on that Paula was born in a small village in Oberschwaben in 1915 to a family of modest means. She had two sisters, one brother who died in World War Two, had little education and worked as a cleaner. The narrator knows very little else of a factual biographical nature about her grandmother. However she does have some warm early memories of Paula, who came to live with her parents soon after they married. When her parents were taken up with a frail younger brother, Paula became her surrogate mother for a while, taking her into her bed at night and comforting her during night terrors. The downside of this intimacy, which becomes increasingly burdensome for the narrator as she gets older, is Paula’s Catholicism. Every childhood misdeed had to be atoned for by prayers, and Paula’s ever more predictable response to life’s challenges by grasping for the rosary in her apron pocket seems pathological- to the reader as well as to the child.

The relationship between grandmother and child really falls apart in adolescence. As the narrator is asserting her independence from the family, Paula starts intruding into her personal space, rifling through her drawers and belongings when she’s at school, appearing at her bedroom door when she wants to be alone. The narrator’s fury is ferocious and at one point she rearranges her furniture so her bed is furthest from the door and her books are piled up against it, barricading herself in and away from her grandmother. We glimpse a little of how damaging this is for the child in a reference to the whole family having to attend family therapy because of her eating disorder. And of the further damage caused by the fact that no other family members see the point of family therapy and blame her for making a fuss.

The portrayal of the narrator’s mother in the story is interesting. Like the narrator, and unlike Paula, she doesn’t have a name, yet she is an important presence. We learn early on that she bears no physical resemblance to her mother, yet states firmly that she has no wish to know more about the identity of her father. We learn later in the book that she was bullied for being a bastard and got away from a life of poverty by going to work in the town where she met her husband. A beautiful woman and accomplished seamstress she was pleased to sew her own clothes after a childhood in hand me downs. She is interested in things which are new and different and at the same time scared of them: at the beginning of the book the narrator says that her parents would not be interested in her life in the multicultural city brimming with variety. I felt she was somehow abandoning her daughter to Paula’s craziness and yet she is not painted as an unsympathetic character. It is as if,  in shutting down her own curiosity about her father, she is colluding in Paula’s silence and cannot go there with her daughter. So the silence has been transmitted across the generations: Das Schweigen hat sich über die Generationen verschleppt.

This is an intense and moving narrative, skilfully developed in a range of voices, from poetic lyricism through chatty anecdote to family dialogue. I was drawn in by the character of the narrator, both the mature woman reflecting on her family and the outraged yet suffering adolescent. As the generations recede so they become more shadowy, the mother emotionally absent and Paula herself an outline, known only through the experience of others. So we can construe her silence on the one hand as a response to the shame and guilt of bearing an illegitimate child at that time in Catholic South Germany. But I find myself thinking too of L. P. Hartley’s The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there : Paula’s character and motivation, her very consciousness is rooted in a past that has now slipped away around a corner and beyond our grasp. It raises the question: at this distance in time what could we ever know about Paula?

The book ends in the present with a family meal and there is the suggestion that things continue to be unsaid in this family. Yet the narrator has made her own life elsewhere which she will return to and I was left with the sense that she was at peace with this. And left with a feeling of admiration for her ability to accept that some things are never satisfactorily resolved : she lays them on one side and walks away, quietly but not in silence.

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Tessa Hadley, the Midland Hotel and Bad Dreams

The best treat at the Midland Hotel

Image result for Midland Hotel + new marble

a couple of weeks ago was the Afternoon Tea event with Tessa Hadley-as part of the Manchester

Literature Festival she’d come to talk about her work and to read us the short story she wrote while Writer in Residence at the Midland-( did I hear the title right? Is it called Men?). Now of course a hotel is a liminal space and, whether Ibis briskly functional or newly marbled like the Midland, a non place in our globalised world, a space where anonymity may breed transgression. So my heart gave a little lurch of pleasure when Tessa read the opening lines of her story- a group of middle aged northerners gathered in the lobby of a posh hotel to celebrate the birthday of one of their number, the old wives and the new wives done up to the nines, the birthday man mine- hosting, putting his guests at their ease, placing his hand, just now and then, on the upper back of his new partner.

 

It is this depiction of social milieu, the subtle indicators of power in human interactions and the lurking possibility of transgression which Tessa Hadley excels at. And we see these elements to great effect in her latest short story collection, Bad Dreams. An Abduction contrasts the yawningly dull 60s home of Jane Allsop with the dangerously bohemian style of Nigel’s house: ‘all glass rectangles and slats of unpainted reddish wood’. Her nascent sexuality simmering beneath the surface, the 15 year old agrees to go off with Nigel and his friends Daniel and Paddy, a group of older boys driving around looking for girls while stoned. Spinning with sensation- their bodies pressing against hers squeezed into the car, their masculine smells- she joins them in shoplifting and worse when she gets back to Nigel’s. She goes home the next day, having told her mother she was at a friends’, and tells no one what happened. But a coda set 40 years later suggests this event marked Jane and the boys quite differently.

We see the workings of power in relationships in the next story The Stain, where Marina starts cleaning for an elderly man in the village, recently moved from South Africa to be near his daughter Wendy. As in so many of Tessa Hadley’s books the house itself acquires protagonist status and through the depiction of Marina cleaning and dusting its unloved and empty rooms we get a sense of her employer as someone unsettled and uprooted as well as isolated. As time goes on the elderly man occasionally puts his arm round her, gives her a little kiss and pops a bit of extra cash in her pay packet – nothing to worry about, he’s just lonely- she thinks until his grandson insists on giving her a lift home one day and tells her something which makes her see her boss in quite a different light.

Past transgressions come to the surface in Under the Sign of the Moon. Middle aged Greta is on her way to Liverpool to visit her daughter Kate and falls into conversation with a younger man on the train. They subsequently meet, half by chance, and the flirtation intermingles with Greta reflecting on her past life with Kate’s father Ian, a hippie rebel, dropping acid and keen to consummate their marriage under the light of the moon. Greta herself was part of his hippy milieu- until she moved away from it and eventually found sensible Graham. But that past is there, hovering beneath the surface, still part of her.

The gap and continuity between past and present is beautifully evoked in Silk Brocade. Set in 1953 the first part of the story tells the story of Ann and Kit who run a dressmaking business in a Bristol basement. Giving swift details of their outfits together with the fabrics and paper patterns they work with, the writer captures a milieu where style and glamour are paramount- an era long since gone. The story develops when Nola, an old school friend, comes to their workshop asking them to make her wedding dress. Rather stolid and old fashioned, Nola is a nurse and has a very different sort of life from Ann and Kit. She asks if they can use some silk brocade from her fiancé’s house to make the dress. The second part of the story, again more of a coda, is set in 1972 and features Sally Ross, Ann’s daughter. With superb economy, Tessa Hadley sketches out what’s happened to Ann and Kit and their glamorous milieu as well as the fate of that thick silk brocade.

So this new collection, Bad Dreams, is every bit as powerful and evocative as all her others- the characters in the book as well as that party in the foyer of the hotel are still in my head, accompanying me back into my own forays into the 60s and 70s and then back again into the present. Thank you for such reading pleasure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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