Family life viewed through a clear lens
THE SPECTACLE SALESMAN’S FAMILY
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
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