'Ordinary People' in Nazi Germany - The Wish Child, Catherine Chidgey, and The Book Thief, Markus Zusak.
Both these novels explore the lives of 'ordinary ' German families living through the years of WW11.
'The Wish Child', by Catherine Chidgey, published in New Zealand in 2016, has recently won the New Zealand Book Award. I could not help wondering if it was possible there could be another novel that could still find something different to say about Nazi Germany, but Catherine Chidgey achieves this.
We are plunged into a re-telling of the still-too-close, strange but familiar horrors of this time, but the horrors are felt rather than seen. This is a mesmerising, soul shaking book. The prose at times feels like a religious chant, repetitive, sonorous, hypnotic. It carries the reader forward on wave after wave, leaving you beached, breathless, uncertain whether the meaning is quite what it seems to be, but yes, you know it is, it really is. This really did happen.
The story explores the experience of two German families through the war, one living in Berlin, and one on a farm outside Leipzig. The point of view is embedded in the lives of these ordinary people. They are the kind of people of whom we now say smugly, 'How could they have let it happen? How could they not have known?' Both families believe that Germany will win the war, and that the Fruher is protecting them. They long for their past wealth and status to be restored to them, and blame 'the English' and 'foreigners' for Germany's economic woes. They believe in Germany's superiority and specialness. They want Germany to be great again.
Very little of this is explicit, however. We are present with them in their small day to day doings, living their ordinary lives as well as they know how. There is nothing extraordinary, either heroic or evil, about any of it - unless you freeze frame for a moment, and look at what you know to be the context of these peoples' lives, and ask, But what are they actually doing? What does this actually mean? There is a surreal quality to these peoples' lives that is reflected powerfully in the prose. It is as if a template for living 'correctly' has been imposed on them all, and any sense of personal morality excised. Sometimes the book almost felt like science fiction, as if this was some kind of made up world, a dystopia, peopled with beings who looked and behaved to all intents and purposes like human beings, but were missing some vital humanising component.
The story is narrated by the Wish Child - a disembodied entity, who is based on Child K, the first child in Nazi Germany to be officially euthanased. His parents petitioned Hitler to allow them to euthanase their son, who had been born with multiple disabilities. Hitler sent his own doctor to see the child, (who went on to an astonishing career, being responsible for the oversight and actual murder of thousands of people he judged to be less than perfectly Aryan, and was subsequently hanged at Nuremburg.) The Wish Child is an all seeing narrator, but he largely leaves us to form our own judgements and draw our own conclusions. He has a peculiar combination of attributes - the innocence of childhood, the capacity to focus on what he sees rather than what he knows, and a natural affinity for the poetic idiom. This is, in part, what gives the prose its surreal quality, powerfully reflecting the surreal-ness of these peoples' lives.
Time and again I was moved to wonder and tears as I reached the end of a scene of domestic or working life, and the full import, the subtext, the reality of what was really happening, would slowly emerge from the pages as if materialising from a fog. In one scene, Emilie, the mother of Seiglinde, is jealous of her sister-in-law's beautiful samovar. She hears that there is one in an auction to be held in another part of the city, and she and Seiglinde travel there by train. They find the place, it is a private house, everything is to be sold. There is an atmosphere of excitement, the samovar is antique, and much more beautiful than her sister-in-law's. When the bidding starts, Emilie finds herself bidding for lots of things, and she gets the samovar. It is a happy and successful day. Slowly, we begin to think about what Seiglinde's mother does not think - that this house belonged to a Jewish family, these possessions have been stolen from them, the family has been split up and sent away, almost certainly to a concentration camp, and if they have not already been murdered, they soon will be. None of this is explicit, it arises only in the reader's mind, like a phantom, taking slow, grim and unmistakeable shape.
I followed my reading of The Wish Child with Markus Zusak's The Book Thief. Somewhat dog-eared, this book has been lying about for a while waiting for my attention. I was interested, emerging from the spell cast by The Wish Child, to see if this novel too could give any fresh insights into the Nazi years.
The Book Thief tells the story of a young girl, Leisel, who is effectively orphaned at the beginning of the war, and sent to live with foster parents in Molking, outside Munich. Through the trauma and deprivations of the war years, she holds on to a sense of identity and self esteem by stealing books, (an act of bravery and rebellion in the savagely book censoring Nazi regime.) and by teaching herself to read. She forms close attachments to a number of people in her life - school friend and fellow thief, Rudy Steiner, the Mayor's wife, the young Jewish man, Max, who her foster parents hide in their basement, and most particularly to her foster father. Almost all are subsequently killed. (I don't know why Zusak leaves it obscure at the end whether the man Leisel marries is actually Max - he treats nothing else in the book this way.)
The narrator of this story is also a disembodied, all-seeing entity - in this case, Death. But unlike in The Wish Child, where the narrator remains an ethereal and ultimately unknowable presence, the character of Death in The Book Thief is developed in a detailed and quite specific way. He has human traits - he gets tired, he gets disappointed, he is curious. Unfortunately, this leads to mounting problems with credibility. Death gathers up souls, for example, gently and carefully, and with great attention to the detail of the death scenes, which often distract him from his purpose. All this in real time. Increasingly, as the war progresses, I was starting to have intrusive thoughts, such as, how has he got time for this? There are probably several hundred thousand people dying today, and he's got no help! By the end, when Zusak writes of Death, 'When I travelled to Sydney and took Leisel away," I laughed out loud, the image of this Death had become a bit absurd.
Despite Death's extremely full on work load during the war years, he has time to observe the detailed day to day developments in Leisel's life. He knows her thoughts, listens to her conversations, muses on her conflicts and motivations. None of this has anything to do with her dying, which she doesn't do until she's an old lady. Why is he hanging about her like this? I kept asking myself. I forgot for long episodes that it was Death who was doing the narrating, and when I was reminded again, it was an uncomfortable and irritating intrusion. Death remains an artificial construct in this story, too developed as a real character to be convincing as Death, and yet not developed enough for us to believe in him or care.
In addition to all this, (oh dear, am I sounding curmudgeonly?), Death strikes a tone which is oddly jocular, by turns sarcastic, sardonic, whimsical, and tongue in cheek. I expect if you are inventing a personality for Death, you can make it what you like, Giving him a somewhat off-the-wall sense of humour has a freshness about it that might have worked better for me had the subject matter not been mass murder, enforced labour, war, terror, starvation, and genocide. Sometimes the tone almost makes it sound as if we are reading a children's book, for example, when Leisel's foster parents decide to hide a Jew in their basement, Death comments in one of his frequent subtitles, 'The Situation of Hans and Rosa Huberman - Very sticky indeed. In fact, frightfully sticky."
The scenes of bombed buildings, the frightening dashes to air raid shelters in the night, the suspicions of neighbours, the isolation and anxiety of people who were not following Nazi protocols to the letter, the rationing, the gradual falling apart of institutions and decimation of families - all are the standard fare of war stories. Leisel is a brave, plucky, resilient, strong, loyal little girl, and the crushing loss she has to face at the end when Himmel Street is reduced to rubble in a bombing raid, should have moved me.
I have read many stories of such people, their heroism, their rebellions, their resistance to the war and to Hitler's Germany. I am more interested these days to read about the sort of people Catherine Chidgey writes about in The Wish Child . People who didn't hide Jews in their basements, even though they might have been friends or neighbours; people who discovered that they'd really never liked or trusted Jews anyway, and now their feelings were being vindicated; people who took advantage of foreign labour, exploiting desperate people because no one stopped them, and after all they were only trying to put food on their own table, and the foreigners should count themselves lucky to have work at all; people who bought Jewish families' possessions, and like everyone who buys something off the back of a truck at a price that's too good to be true, put their own financial advantage over what they knew was wrong.
We are living now at a time when nationalism is on the rise in many countries. It starts as a bit of harmless flag waving, and a warm sentimental glow on national days of celebration. It is easily exploited by politicians, and quickly grows into something ugly - a collective sense of entitlement, that we are better than others, that our country is better than other countries, or deserves to be, or would be if it wasn't for outsiders/foreigners/immigrants. The us and them mentality is easily triggered; it lies sleeping in all of us, part of our dark side, of a primitive instinct for self preservation which places the self first. It has long been irrational. Taking care of others is demonstrably and almost universally the best way in the end of taking care of ourselves.
We need writers like Catherine Chidgey who are willing to explore the fault lines in these human tendencies, to expose the dark side that can be found in the thoughts and feelings of 'ordinary' people living average lives, you and me, to show us how it can happen that the private grievances and discontents of such people can morph into a collective nightmare of mass murder and persecution, a cataclysm engulfing millions, such as happened in the Nazi years.