Monday, February 14, 2011

The History of History by Ida Hattemer-Higgins

This first novel by Ida Hattemer-Higgins is subtitled, “A Novel of Berlin,” and the city literally seethes and breathes on every page. Margaret Taub is a tour guide, with an intimate knowledge of its streets and the ability to describe not only what is seen on them but what the streets themselves have witnessed. For any modern novel of Berlin must have a memory, unspeakable memories, and a voice to reveal them.

But Margaret has amnesia - a limited case of amnesia, covering a period in 2002 and 2003. Her amnesia though, is meant to remind us of the collective amnesia of the German people over the mass insanity of the Nazi period. As Margaret begins her investigation into what happened during her missing months, she is pursued by the spirit of Magda Goebbels, the wife of Hitler’s propaganda minister, in the form of a tempting, accusing harpy. Magda, of course, is notoriously remembered for having murdered her six children in the Fuhrer Bunker, even after Hitler’s suicide, rather than spirit them to safety.

Margaret sees herself in Magda, and in Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress and wife for a day. She sees herself in the family Strauss, who killed themselves rather than face the horror of the war. She sees herself passing judgment on victim and murderer alike, finding kinship with each alike, until all human action is revealed as corrupt. Her observations and obsessions lead her to believe that what she is doing is domesticating her fear, homogenizing the terror.

Margaret is an American with German ancestry, so she (believes she) is an outsider to the recriminations and excuses that modern Germany’s collective memory offers to the Holocaust. But the creeping insanity that she battles is something that anyone who plunges into the history of the Third Reich feels. We see the camps, we see the abandoned shoes and abandoned clothes and abandoned lives, and we desperately want it all to mean something. The sufferings of millions crystallize for us for just a moment in one solitary life, and we mourn, though we are not sure what precisely we are mourning.

Margaret’s visits to a Dr. Arabscheilis confirm some of this:

“’If you read some scrap of history,’ the doctor said, ‘you are doing nothing but replaying your own life, only in heavy makeup. The world is pregnant with your own face, and it will never give birth to anything else. You know nothing but this life of yours, which is plain and pure emotion, stripped of all gratification of meaning - just a whimper in the dark. A story, by contrast, is a symphony blooming in the sunlight, trying to draw you away from chaos.”

Later in the novel, Margaret again speaks to the doctor about the similarity, on a smaller and at the same time more epic scale, between the Holocaust and the Crucifixion. Margaret wonders that if since the death of one man led to spiritual enlightenment, can the death of millions more help the world in the same way. The doctor dismisses this, saying, “The murder of the Jews of Europe in the twentieth century is only interesting to people for whom it is not unbearable. Interest in terrible things is always a sign of detachment.” In the beginning, we tried not to talk about it, and now we perhaps talk too much about it, with the feeling we will never comprehend it at all.

Humanity still hasn’t figured out a way to make sense of the murder of six million Jews, much less the death of 50 million in the Second World War, which is one of the reasons why fiction dealing with the Shoah usually suffers from two defects - the story does not do justice to the reality we know, or the story attempts to borrow the clothes of the event for itself and disguises a defective story. But Hattemer-Higgins wisely uses the idea of the tour guide as both outsider and insider, and her prose mirrors the mental confusion of Margaret Taub as she realizes her journey is one of self-discovery. The narrative veers into magic realism occasionally, and adopts an almost Biblical language at times, as if conventional English is somehow unworthy of the trauma at the heart of the story.

Because this is a story not just about collective, historical evil, but about personal evil and the will to want to forget. I was reminded of Ron Rosenbaum’s “Explaining Hitler,” a wonderful book written in 1998 about Hitler explainers - those philosophers, historians, psychologists, theologians and Holocaust survivors who argue over the question of whether Hitler was evil - in other words, did he know his dream of mass murder was evil, or was he, in the words of one biographer, “convinced of his own rectitude?” It is not a small question, as Rosenbaum states:

“…what we talk about when we talk about Hitler is often not the Hitler of history but the meaning of evil. Not evil as some numinous supernatural entity but evil as a name for a capacity of human nature. To what degree does Hitler represent some ultimate, perhaps never-before-seen extension of that capacity? Or does he represent not a qualitative leap in that capacity but rather a figure whose distinctiveness and importance in this regard have been inflated by the quantity of his victims?”

But Margaret Taub, her name means deaf, is not a victim of Hitler, but of a man named Amadeus, whose name means “work of God.” Her love affair with this older man starts her on a bitter road that brings her face to face with her own origins, and headed for a destination that ends up being her undoing. It is the memory of Amadeus and what became of their affair which is the genesis of her amnesia. Her suffering is a particularly feminine kind of suffering, and we perceive that her passion will not be assuaged by the passage of time. The fact that the world continues in the face of her pain is real and devastating. We often abandon our secret shame at the doors of others, only to see it wither in their indifference, the screams going ignored, and then silent.

In this regard, Margaret Taub’s odyssey through the pulsating streets of Berlin, her ears ringing with the accusations of millions, the hands of creeping death fondling her imagination, bears some kinship with the narrator of Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” herself employing the language of the Shoah to describe her fascination with death:

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I have a call.

Because the picture of Hitler, trapped in the bunker of his own creation, a victim of his own accumulating sins, fascinates us in the same way as grand opera, only more so because we know it to be real. And we know that the nature of humanity’s capacity for evil has never fully been appreciated or understood, just as the supreme sacrifice to undo it has remained, for many, ignored and unaccepted.

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