A ‘cas­tle of mur­der’ in Nazi Aus­tria is at the heart of a semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal fam­ily chron­i­cle

The Guardian - Review - - Fiction - Ian Thom­son

Ca­te­rina Pas­cual Söder­baum, who died in 2015 at the age of 53, was born in Upp­sala, cen­tral Swe­den, to par­ents still in thrall to the swastika. Her book, a semi-fic­tion­alised fam­ily chron­i­cle that ven­tures into other lives and his­tor­i­cal events in wartime Eu­rope, is an at­tempt to come to terms with a trou­bled and dis­qui­et­ing past.

Gertrud Söder­baum, the au­thor’s Swedish mother, was re­lated to Hitler’s favourite fe­male ac­tor Kristina Söder­baum, who played the lead role in the an­ti­semitic pro­pa­ganda film Jud Süss; her Span­ish fa­ther, Sal­vador (“Sal”) Pas­cual Pascó, was a die-hard Falangist who kept a framed pho­to­graph of Hitler on his wall. To Ca­te­rina, th­ese par­ents were just or­di­nar­ily hu­man.

At first glance, The Oblique Place ap­pears to be in nar­ra­tive dis­ar­ray, rang­ing con­fus­ingly back and forth in time from Spain to Swe­den, from oc­cu­pied Poland to Stal­in­grad. But a uni­fy­ing thread does emerge. In pages of densely wrought, dream­like prose we read of Tre­blinka death camp, and other enor­mi­ties, while the au­thor con­sid­ers her child­hood, caught jar­ringly be­tween Bar­bie dolls and sou­venir Nazi dag­gers. Sal­vador first met Gertrud in 1959 on a ship sail­ing from Barcelona to Tener­ife. Gertrud was smit­ten by the ex-le­gion­naire, whose ob­ses­sion with sac­ri­fice and suf­fer­ance seemed at once dis­con­cert­ing and se­duc­tive. Their daugh­ter, Ca­te­rina, was born three years later.

At the book’s ter­ri­ble heart lies the Schloss Hartheim eu­thana­sia clinic in Nazi Aus­tria, where more than 18,000 “use­less mouths” were mur­dered by poi­son gas, among them Jews, autis­tic peo­ple, po­lit­i­cal dis­si­dents and Catholic cler­gy­men. Sal­vador Pascó had no phys­i­cal con­nec­tion to Hartheim but his fas­cist be­liefs be­longed there. By means of pho­to­graphs, wit­ness tes­ti­monies, di­aries and other doc­u­men­ta­tion, the day-to-day life of the Aus­trian “cas­tle of mur­der” is brought dis­turbingly to life.

Ca­te­rina Söder­baum, a trans­la­tor of Swedish lit­er­a­ture into Span­ish, writes here with a sen­su­ous im­me­di­acy of de­tail. Su­perbly trans­lated by Frank Perry, The Oblique Place med­i­tates darkly on our mo­ral and me­mo­rial obli­ga­tions to the past. by Ca­te­rina Pas­cual Söder­baum, trans­lated by Frank Perry, MacLe­hose, £14.99

To buy The Oblique Place for £13.91 go to guardian­book­shop.com.

The Oblique Place

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.