#GermanLitMonth Julia Franck’s tale of parental abandonment

Very nearly the end of the month and this may be the only German book I get to finish. Great plans fail in the execution, don’t they? However, I’ve been watching the first series of Babylon Berlin on NowTV, so I feel immersed in that period, almost as if I’d participated in the Berlin Alexanderplatz readalong.

Julia Franck’s strangely entitled Die Mittagsfrau (The Noon Witch, apparently after a Slavic myth) has been translated as either The Blind Side of the Heart in the UK (translated by Anthea Bell) or The Blindness of the Heart in the US (although still with Anthea Bell as a translator). Like in her other novels, Franck does a fantastic job of blending the personal with the historical, showing how we are all shaped by the political and social forces of the times we live in… and yet are often unaware of them, so self-absorbed are we.

Helene and her sister Martha are mixed-race (their mother is Jewish and their father Aryan German) but barely aware of the fact. Their father dies as a result of his wounds in the First World War and their mother becomes increasingly more depressed and erratic, with severe hoarding instincts, proving utterly unable to take care of the girls. They both hope to study medicine, but end up working as nurses in Weimar Berlin. Their brief period of freedom, fun and partying soon comes to an end. Helene endures heartbreak and marriage to an unforgiving man who feels she owes him because he faked ‘pure descent’ papers for her so she could continue working under the Nazis. It is a picture of the average person in wartime Germany, the great complicit masses, who were not heroic, who were disturbed by what they see around them, yet unable to do or say anything for fear of endangering their own lives.

What I liked most about this book is that it’s not judgmental or preachy at all – it just shows the unbearable sadness of a life marked by great upheavals, and how all we can hope for is to survive, albeit with huge scars. After the initial fireworks in the opening (more about that in the next paragraph), the piling on of disappointments, traumas and horrors both great and small is done subtly, as gradually as it happens in real life.

It has been grim reading, so I struggled with it especially in the chapters depicting the sisters’ childhood, but it’s not relentlessly dark. There are some comic moments (although always with a dark undertone). For instance, when Brecht’s Threepenny Opera literally makes Helene throw up. Or Helene’s wedding night, with her new husband very keen to show off his sexual prowess. But it’s the small, perfectly observed scenes where private life is suddenly confronted with the bigger picture that are most memorable: hearing her son sing a taunting song about Jews that everyone at school was repeating; seeing her mother in a mental asylum and having to pretend she is not related to her; going mushroom hunting in the forest and realising that the horrible stench coming from the train that is standing on the tracks there is not bovine or pig dung.

Everyone who has read the book (or who refuses to read the book) will refer to the shocking prologue, in which a mother abandons her 7 year old son on a station platform. We know from the start that it is 1945, that they are Germans trying to evacuate from Stettin (now part of Poland), that the father has abandoned the family and that the mother is a nurse who has been raped by Soviet soldiers, but it takes the rest of the book to examine just how the heart of a young girl has hardened, how desperate and hopeless she feels and how she arrives at the conclusion that sending her son alone back to relatives in Germany is the best thing she can do for him. In a very poignant epilogue, we also see how things have turned out for the son and what lasting effect this has had on him.

I’ve had a heated debate with a Russian friend who condemns Marina Tsvetaeva for leaving her daughers in an orphanage for a while during the Moscow famine during the Civil War in Russia 1917-1920. Her younger daughter died and my friend argues that no mother should ever abandon her children, even if she thinks that is what’s best for them at the time. But I think it’s easy to be judgemental when you are not living through such extreme times. We’ll never know for sure how we would react if we were faced with similar desperate circumstances. I also abhor the double standard: men have often abandoned their families for far less reason, while women are vilified if they do it.

This is not to say that we should admire or like Helene. No one emerges happy and pristine from the messiness of life lived with far fewer choices than most of us can imagine having nowadays. It is a wonderful metaphor for Germany, but like all good books, it has a truly universal message. I think of those parents who reluctantly, with broken hearts and with their last desperate reserves of money, send their children abroad to escape horrible wars and persecution in their own homes, without knowing if they will ever end up in a safe place or if they will ever see them again…

The Fiction of Abandonment

Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment and Tamaz Chiladze’s The Brueghel Moon are both about the breakdown of marriage and the disastrous effects this has on the psyche of the person who is left behind. Both of them also show, with devastating clarity, how the abandoned partner then proceeds to wreak havoc on the people around them as they struggle to come to terms with their new situation and identity. They are anything but dry reads with a thesis, however.

BrueghelMoonChiladze is a Georgian poet, novelist and playwright and comes from a notable literary family: his mother was a poet, his younger brother was also a poet and journalist, credited with playing an important role in the resurrection of Georgian literature in the post-Stalinist era. Have you ever read a Georgian author before? No, neither have I – so it’s kudos to Dalkey Archive for opening up this chapter and this world for us. And it’s clearly a very different world indeed.

However, I can now add Georgia to my Global Reading Challenge – as an unexpected (and controversial) entrant for Europe. Yes, there has been some debate whether Georgia, which is located on the Caucasian peninsula, is in Europe or in Asia, but the population certainly considers itself more European than anything else.

‘Ultimately, the function of literature is to intensify mystery, not to solve it,’ Chiladze says in an interview – and he certainly succeeds in that. It’s the story of a psychotherapist, Levan, who is suffering a mid-life crisis and starts blurring the borders between his personal and his professional life. His wife leaves him just as the novel opens. Levan is baffled but emotionally frozen, yet soon embarks upon illicit relationships with not just one but two of his patients – the enigmatic Nunu (an astrophysicist who appears to know some state secrets and who perhaps was involved in her husband’s death) and the fragile, depressed Ana-Maria, wife of the French ambassador, who attempted to commit suicide. The points of view shift between these three main protagonists, sometimes within the same chapter, from 1st to 3rd person, so it’s not always easy to tell who says what. The voices themselves are not distinct enough. These are all intellectually gifted people perpetually on the edge of a breakdown.

I found the perpetual shifts confusing: just as I was warming to one particular voice, I had to acquaint myself with a new one. I also found the monologues of Levan at times a little too self-referential, too didactic. For example:

My composure is an act, a ploy. My professional mask. The questions asked by my patients might sound abnormal, but are deeply human and only someone hiding behind the mask of composure can ward them off… I have erected a lofty wall around myself, which means not only that it’s impenetrable for others, but that my essence can’t get out either, being confined within, unable to splash in the stormy waves of what’s called Life…

A contrast to the ‘splashing’ in emotional and stormy waves in Ferrante’s book, obviously. There was something a little arid about The Brueghel Moon, which didn’t quite allow me to fully engage .I’m not sure if it’s the translation or the lack of contextual knowledge on my part. Nevertheless, this was an interesting depiction of a country and period in recent history about which I know very little.

daysabandonFerrante’s book has the upper hand when it comes to reader engagement: by focusing on just one narrator, one side of the story, we have a coherent, undiluted dramatic monologue. And what a monologue it is! It sweeps the reader (and all else before it) away in a relentless turmoil and maelstrom of emotions. This is bold, brassy, uncensored description of wallowing in self-pity, anger, desire for revenge, confusion and loss of self-esteem. And it’s all described in Technicolor, not in a genteel, quiet way. This way of handling emotions is not that unfamiliar to me coming from a Latin culture: we are noisy and expressive and shameless. Think of Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or All About My Mother – or indeed pretty much any Almodovar film. Think of the impassioned gesticulation of Camilleri’s characters in his Montalbano novels.

Yet the narrative is tightly controlled. It all starts in a matter-of-fact way. “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” Olga is thirty-eight, tidy, neat, precise, the kind of woman who always puts in commas and avoids the melodramatics of her family back in Naples. She is married to Mario, lives in Turin and has two young children, a girl and a boy. So Olga’s descent into a messy hell of bereavement is all the more shocking.

The author knows exactly what she is doing, however, how much to reveal and how she wants us to view her main character, even though the language and thoughts seem to flow so naturally and uncensored. Olga behaves erratically, sometimes descending into farcical situations (the shards in the pasta sauce) or tragicomedy (being locked inside the house, unable to open the door, with a dying dog, a child with a high temperature, and no telephone connection).

Her  internal monologue appears to be captured in a literal transcription, with no filter, admitting even her most bizarre, unsayable thoughts: what if she just left her children in the park? what if she were to use her neighbour as a sexual prop? I could not help but feel sorry for her, deeply empathetic to her plight, yet also faintly repulsed and wanting to shake her out of her stupor. Olga has given up her own ambitions and career for marriage and motherhood, and now is furious at the double betrayal: by societal expectations, but also by biology. Her chilling condemnation of maternal instinct is miles away from the cosy pictures we get to see elsewhere.

I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping; a cud made of a living material that continually amalgamated and softened its living substance to allow two greedy bloodsuckers to nourish themselves, leaving on me the odor and taste of their gastric juices. Nursing, how repulsive, an animal function.

Ultimately, both of the main protagonists of these novels are self-centred, self-absorbed, but not really self-aware. That’s why I suspect they are quite credible descriptions of the despair of abandonment, even if they manifest themselves in different ways. I would certainly pick the Ferrante book over the other, partly because I can relate better to a female character, but also because on this occasion I prefer my emotions out in the open.