Fam­ily life viewed through a clear lens

THE SPEC­TA­CLE SALES­MAN’S FAM­ILY

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

By Vi­ola Roggenkamp (Trans: Helena Ragg-Kirby) Vi­rago, £14.99 hard­back RE­VIEWED BY DAVID HER­MAN

FROM THE first sen­tence —“My mother is com­ing to rip the night apart.” — the spec­ta­cle sales­man’s wife, Alma, is at the heart of this novel. She is a ter­rific cre­ation. Think of the Alison Stead­man char­ac­ter in Abi­gail’s Party; imag­ine her more Jewish, more hys­ter­i­cal, and then mul­ti­ply it all by 10.

The sales­man him­self is quiet, al­ways on the mar­gins. He is no Willy Lo­man. Alma, by con­trast, is con­stantly cen­trestage — fiery, tense, al­ways ready to at­tack with an an­gry word or un­for­giv­ing look: “Her words came fly­ing out like bul­lets”. One word came “hiss­ing and rat­tling out of the mouth”.

Her two teenage daugh­ters, Vera and Fa­nia (the 13-year-old nar­ra­tor) are both fas­ci­nated and re­pelled by their mother, com­pet­ing for her love and at the same time long­ing to es­cape. They know she is a mon­ster but they also con­stantly seek her ap­proval. It is one of the best nov­els you could read about sis­ters grow­ing up to­gether, know­ing that they can rely only on each other but also con­stantly look­ing out for acts of be­trayal.

For th­ese sis­ters, grow­ing up in 1960s Ham­burg, ado­les­cence is ex­cep­tion­ally fraught. Fam­ily life is a mine­field, full of anx­i­eties and shift­ing al­liances. Their par­ents never let them out of their sight in case some­thing ter­ri­ble hap­pens. Wor­ry­ing con­ver­sa­tions al­ways go on be­hind closed doors. And there is an­other com­pli­ca­tion: the fam­ily is haunted by the past.

Alma and her mother, who lives with them, are both Ger­man Jews. They sur­vived the Holo­caust, and the sales­man, a gen­tile, stood by them, but it was all at great cost.

Few post-war nov­els have so del­i­cately, and in such beau­ti­fully un­der­stated fash­ion, evoked the in­vis­i­ble scars of sur­vivors and the con­se­quences th­ese have for their chil­dren. Each page car­ries echoes of the past; each me­mory trig­gers an­other as­so­ci­a­tion.

Yet Roggenkamp’s great­est strength is in how she cap­tures the char­ac­ters’ feel­ings of be­ing trapped. The fa­ther drives off ev­ery week to sell his wares but the four women left at home are un­able to go out into the out­side world. The sis­ters dream of leav­ing home, Alma dreams of leav­ing Ger­many with its ter­ri­ble mem­o­ries, but they re­main, stuck with each other.

This is a Holo­caust novel with a dif­fer­ence, about the quiet, des­per­ate ways in which the past lives on in the present. There are none of the clichés about Nazism, in­deed very lit­tle drama at all. It is about liv­ing af­ter, the con­stant sense of re­crim­i­na­tion Alma feels to­wards al­most ev­ery Ger­man she meets on the street.

Roggenkamp — a lead­ing Ger­man jour­nal­ist who was the pub­lisher of Die Zeit for many years — brings to life a Ger­many we have al­most forgotten: the re­spectable Ger­many of the 1960s which tried to pre­tend that noth­ing had hap­pened. Ev­ery­one is too po­lite to talk about the past. Alma’s hys­te­ria partly stems from the fact that she still re­mem­bers while the world around her is try­ing to for­get. The strain of liv­ing such a life makes both par­ents con­stantly ill. It is a bril­liant and il­lu­mi­nat­ing in­sight.

There is a con­stant sense that some ter­ri­ble fam­ily se­cret is go­ing to erupt, but the real power of this novel lies in the truth that some fam­i­lies are as hard to es­cape from as the mem­o­ries of even the most ter­ri­ble his­tory. David Her­man is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer

Learn­ing and grow­ing up to­gether: Read­ing, by Michele Warner

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