Journey into a lost identity
WHEN a catastrophe occurs, the terrible events suffered by participants may be over in an instant, but the trauma of the ordeal can last for the rest of their lives. Europeans spent six agonising years suffering World War II yet, although it ended more than 60 years ago, there are people for whom the nightmare endures. Victims of the firestorm, survivors of the concentration and death camps as well as their families, refugees and their descendants, and the soldiers themselves, continue to experience the incalculable suffering that is the quintessence of war.
Much literature has been devoted to the history of conflict, its heroes and heroines and the monsters who perpetrate aggression, but rarely are books devoted to the victims of war, and even fewer to the survivors who carry the scars forever.
In many cases victims entomb the horrors to which they were witness deep in their subconscious. Only occasionally do they allow thoughts of those evil days to return to the surface, when jogged by something as innocuous as a sound, a smell or an object.
Repressed memory and the dramatic effects it can suddenly release are the subject of this new novel by New Zealand writer Linda Olsson. Sonata for Miriam begins in the present but takes us back to the events of World War II and across several nations as its protagonist searches for an understanding of his identity and of the forces that shape him.
For Adam Anker, the central character, events begin with the discovery of a hairclip, something that brings back aching memories of the senseless, anonymous accident that killed his daughter, Miriam. The hairclip is the key that opens the door he has locked against the trauma of his loss. The discovery affects him deeply and makes him intent on finding who he is and why he has become that man.
He sets out on a journey of detection that is internal and external, travelling to places in Poland and Sweden, but part of his discovery is to travel back in time to the circumstances of his birth.
In a language and style that borders on the poetic, Olsson paints a vivid and memorable tableau of the way in which great historical events affect nations and individuals. Her novel is one of grief, of the pain of loss and detachment. A lesser writer might have wallowed in bathos for dramatic effect and the book would have been maudlin, but Olsson shows great skill in her ability to maintain the reader’s empathy with Adam as he discovers the truth of his birth, his post-war displacement and the truth of his parentage.
As he uncovers who he is, we feel a release bordering on triumph.
Although Adam suffers unremitting sadness throughout the novel, the beauty and commanding style Olsson brings to her prose make reading it a pleasure.
The story begins when Adam, a classical musician in NZ, visits a World War II exhibition and discovers in one of the exhibits an elderly woman’s plea to anybody who may know the whereabouts of a man named Adam Lipski, his birth name. The message attached to the photograph is simple in its eloquence: ‘‘ I saw my brother Adam for the last time in November 1939. I was told he had fled to Lithuania together with a friend. I have never stopped searching.’’
Adam determines to set out and find the woman who may be his sister, and understand the circumstances of his buried past.
But on that same day his life is put on hold when Miriam dies in an accident, and for the next year Adam’s life is lived in a trance.
Eventually contacting the elderly woman, Clara Fried, he starts on his journey of discovery and finds the uncomfortable but liberating truth