Weekend Herald - Canvas
Into the uncertain heart of human complicity
“There is no such thing,” wrote Buchenwald survivor Jorge Semprun, “as an innocent memory.” Catherine Chidgey tested these words in the award-winning The Wish Child, and returns to it in her latest novel, set in and around the Buchenwald labour camp near the picturesque Weimar village.
Chidgey alternates between three main characters. Leonard Weber is a doctor of Jewish ancestry, inventor of the “Sympathetic Vitaliser”, an electrotherapeutic device he believes could cure metastatic carcinoma. SS Sturmbannfuhrer Dietrich Hahn, the new camp administrator at Buchenwald, reads of his work and hopes for a cure for his wife, Greta, our third narrator. She is desperately hoping for a second child but can’t conceive because of ovarian cancer.
The story largely unfolds through Weber’s letters, Greta’s diary and the transcribed recordings of Dietrich’s post-war trial at Dachau.
The Hahns’ new home is set within a picturesque forest. A picnic in the park takes Greta close to the barracks, the wisp of smoke coming out of a chimney “pointing into the sky like a vast brick finger” and the pervasive smell: “fatty and smoky and too too sweet”. There is the sound of shouting in the distance, dogs barking, a gunshot. “What was that?” asks a jittery Greta. “That’s where they bring you if you’re naughty,” whispers her son’s new friend.
Hahn wrestles with corruption in the camp — “rife at every level” (including his own) — and a system straining under a burgeoning population. As Semprun argued, “innocent memory” is impossible among the casual lies, the sloppy killings, the swastika baubles on the Christmas trees, the thriving vegetable crop (“It’s the ashes”), the Little Camp with its “stinking stables full of Jews and lice and its piles of corpses”. Then there’s the laboratory in the Hygiene Institute housed in Block 50 — “a decent source of revenue”, reasons Hahn, “with pharmaceutical companies and medical institutes paying to conduct their trials inside the camp, where laws around experimental procedures did not apply. I hadn’t known that.”
The tension mounts, building on the failure of Weber’s machine, the progression of Greta’s illness (her death would end Weber’s protected status and presumably that of his wife and child) and the ever-approaching forces of the Allies and the Red Army.
Unlike Semprun and Primo Levi — camp survivors — Chidgey enters imaginatively into the minds of her narrators to try to understand why people “very like ourselves” can undertake or justify or ignore the atrocities at camps such as Buchenwald. This challenge is not entirely met. Greta suspects but does not see; her husband sees — even orchestrates — but is blind to any “remote sympathy”; the people of Weimar swing between blame and feigned ignorance. As readers, we are left with horror and, as always in relation to the Holocaust, bewilderment. But in its deft melding of fact and fiction, its skilful examination of human sympathy and faith, its dramatic tension and quiet lyricism, Remote Sympathy takes us bravely, compellingly, into the uncertain heart of human complicity.