Jour­ney into a lost iden­tity

Alan Gold

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.