Furtive de­sire in a house of se­crets and lies

De­bra Ade­laide

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

SOME­TIMES peo­ple are re­quired to jus­tify the ac­tiv­ity of read­ing ( and it is an ac­tiv­ity, not the pas­sive pur­suit many think), as if it were a slightly shame­ful habit, like chew­ing fin­ger­nails or smok­ing, a habit made all the worse by one’s in­abil­ity to con­ceal it in pub­lic.

Hence my slight sense of dis­com­fort when read­ing The Spec­ta­cle Sales­man’s Fam­ily on the train. It’s manda­tory to read MX, OK to read the latest Harry Pot­ter, at least on my line. But you can be an ob­ject of cu­rios­ity if you are hold­ing some­thing un­know­able. As the bland cover of the proof copy of The Spec­ta­cle Sales­man’s Fam­ily of­fered no hints to sur­round­ing com­muters, I was ques­tioned.

‘‘ It’s about a Jewish fam­ily in 1960s Ger­many,’’ I an­swered. That didn’t quite close the door, as I’d hoped. ‘‘ You like read­ing, do you?’’ To some­one stand­ing in an over­crowded car­riage stuffed with more iPods and mo­bile phones than there are peo­ple to use them, and per­form­ing in­ter­nal mus­cu­lar mir­a­cles in or­der to stay up­right and hold on to their book, their bag and their pa­tience all at once, that has to be the stu­pid­est ques­tion you can ask.

But it was a salu­tary ex­pe­ri­ence. That furtive sense we have when im­mersed in fiction, when — even on the train — we’re ex­pected to be read­ing some­thing ac­ces­si­ble, use­ful or in­for­ma­tive. Furtive de­sire in­fuses this strange but even­tu­ally be­guil­ing first novel from Vi­ola Roggenkamp, a Ger­man jour­nal­ist who for 30 years has worked for lead­ing weekly news­pa­per Die Zweit .

And by strange I also mean dif­fi­cult, at least for the first 100 pages or so, dur­ing which the au­thor de­vel­ops char­ac­ter and voice but at the ex­pense

of story. Adding to th­ese prob­lems are ones, I sus­pect, of trans­la­tion, and also of sim­ple punc­tu­a­tion, which makes hard work dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween the nar­ra­tor’s thoughts, her spo­ken words and the di­a­logue of other char­ac­ters.

Even­tu­ally, though, a se­ries of in­sub­stan­tial but en­dear­ing glimpses into a Ger­man fam­ily’s life set­tles into a story that be­comes in­creas­ingly tightly wrought, as we see the nar­ra­tor, 13- yearold Fa­nia Schiefer, slowly be­gin­ning to ap­pre­hend the con­text of her life. She and her older sis­ter have been brought up to un­der­stand al­most ev­ery­thing about their fam­ily’s his­to­ries on both sides, but very lit­tle about them­selves. Con­se­quently, even the fact that they are Jewish is a reve­la­tion.

‘‘ Are they Jews?’’ asks one of the girls in Fa­nia’s class. Fa­nia ‘‘ was in­stantly elec­tri­fied. That word. There it was at last. And I had to keep a care­ful check on what they did with it.’’

De­spite their mother’s anx­ious at­ten­tive­ness, their most im­por­tant de­sires and needs re­main un­met. Poised be­tween post- war para­noia and late ’ 60s po­lit­i­cal and sex­ual revo­lu­tion, Fa­nia comes to em­body im­mi­nence. Roggenkamp ex­ploits this tense bal­ance of the teenage sen­si­bil­ity in scenes that usher the nar­ra­tor through ex­pe­ri­ences that broaden her knowl­edge, for in­stance of her par­ents’ past as vic­tims of Nazi racism and in par­tic­u­lar her mother and grand­mother’s suf­fer­ing, but also con­fuse and some­times re­strict her un­der­stand­ing.

The Shiefer fam­ily is af­fec­tion­ate and tightly knit, united in its tragi­comic ob­ses­sion to buy the house they live in. Yet it is also full of se­crets and lies. Thus Fa­nia never re­ally knows if her sis­ter is hav­ing an af­fair with the de­spised land­lord of the house, which he may or may not want to sell to them. And which he may have ac­quired il­le­gally from a dis­pos­sessed Jewish fam­ily that fled to Brazil.

Ul­ti­mately, Fa­nia sur­ren­ders to nar­ra­tive and it is fiction in par­tic­u­lar that forms the most im­por­tant turn­ing point in her life, sig­nalled right at the end of the novel. An erotic though not shame­ful ex­pe­ri­ence with the mother of a friend is cen­tred on their mu­tual read­ing of Goethe’s 1809 novel Elec­tive Affini­ties. This novel, which ar­gues for a pre- de­ter­mined chem­i­cal at­trac­tion be­tween hu­mans that sup­pos­edly gov­erns all pas­sion, mar­riage, con­flict and free will, be­comes Fa­nia’s emo­tional, in­tel­lec­tual and even phys­i­cal cat­a­lyst. All through her school­ing, Fa­nia is un­able to write prop­erly, but some­how, al­most mirac­u­lously, her es­say on the topic ‘‘ Write about a book you en­joyed read­ing’’ is per­fectly formed, the best in the class. Her read­ing of Elec­tive Affini­ties has been so fluid and at­ten­tive, it re­veals that sur­ren­der­ing to the right book can in­spire the right words. It arouses within her a voice. It’s a nice lit­tle jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the ac­tiv­ity of read­ing, for those who de­sire it. De­bra Ade­laide’s new novel, The House­hold Guide to Dy­ing, will be pub­lished by Pi­cador in June.

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