Historically sound but disturbingly obsessive

2011-07-20 00:00

THIS debut novel set in contemporary Berlin begins with the main character, Margaret, waking up in a forest, and not knowing how she got there. From this amnesia, she enters into a nightmarish ­archaeology of both the history of the city and her own life.

In common with the author, American-born Margaret is a Berlin student who works as a tour guide, visiting sites associated with the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. She becomes obsessed with the history of the Third Reich, and she grapples with a key question: how does one bear the unbearable?

The author, in an interview posted on her website, says that the book is structured as an allegory. It can be read both as Margaret’s story and “figuratively as a fable of a nation that wakes up slowly, after two decades of amnesia, to a recognition of atrocities in its past.”

The magical realism of the dense, wordy and metaphorical writing style, plunges the reader into Margaret’s lurid world, where the buildings of Berlin become transformed into flesh. Hattemer-Higgins acknowledges that stylistically, the book is in “the postmodern tradition, with its eccentric mixing of high culture and camp, its carnival hodgepodge of styles, the quotations from original sources”.

Yet “underneath the stylistic façade”, she adds, “the book is a single scream, one long lament for the tragedy of unbearable memory.”

The novel, that she says is partly a “modern retelling of Goethe’s Faust”, incorporates a dream Hattemer-Higgins had about an “old gynecologist who moonlighted as a ‘memory surgeon’”, and it encompasses her fascination with the legacy of the Third Reich, which resulted from her experiences as a tour guide in Berlin.

Historical detail is one of the strengths of the book, not least the story of Magda Goebbels, with whom Margaret becomes obsessed. The description of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp is very powerful, as is the rendering of the experiences of a German-Jewish family, prior to the deportation of Jews from Berlin.

However, combining the psychopathology of an individual with that of a nation, and conflating the perpetrator and the victim are notions that are deeply troubling. Whether exploring such linkages — as this novel boldly and obsessively attempts to do — is profound or obscene, remains an unanswered question.

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