Rubble and trouble, Philip Temple

Kaput!
Stevan Eldred-Grigg
1stBooks Library, $50 approx,
ISBN 1587215543

Before me I have a postcard of a 1952 poster published by the Office of Information of the German Democratic Republic. A Berlin working woman stands behind a pile of bricks, ruined buildings in the background, and joyously declares, “Our Berlin will be beautiful like never before!” The woman depicted was one of the Trümmerfrauen, working-class survivors of the bombing and shelling holocaust who, with their bare hands, stacked millions of rubbled bricks and began the gigantic task of rebuilding. The physical and psychological suffering endured by the women of Berlin during the genocidal bombing offensive from 1941 and the 1945 invasion by the Soviet army, followed by years of life in an occupied wasteland, has been largely obscured by the military and political stories of World War 2, the Holocaust and the melodrama of the last days in the Führerbunker.

Stories and information about the wartime lives of these women have come principally from diaries, memoirs or commentaries in translation from the German, of which Stevan Eldred-Grigg gives a fairly comprehensive list in acknowledging his source material. When confronting his substantial 430-page novel Kaput!, therefore, one immediately asks, “Why this subject?” and “Why a New Zealand author?” The answer is, of course, “Why not?”, and Eldred-Grigg is again to be congratulated for stepping outside the pale of what is generally prescribed and rewarded as the concerns of New Zealand fiction. Yet the broad theme of the novel is also consistent with his recurrent preoccupation with the lives of working-class women; and the lives of these Berliners were more tragic and traumatic than anything experienced by women in New Zealand. Eldred-Grigg’s novel is a valuable corrective to our own stories of war which, even today, tend to cast Anglo-Saxons as heroes and Germans as villains, regardless of gender or circumstance.

Given that there are a number of eyewitness accounts, a fictional treatment of this subject by an outsider seems only worthwhile if the writer can pull off something akin to Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark. In employing authentic material that exceeds the limits of most serious fictional drama and tragedy, a writer must draw out individual lives in stories that express a universal pathos, no matter how distant they may be from the reader’s own experience. In Schindler’s Ark, Keneally, following his “factional” treatment of the surrender at Compiègne in 1918 (Gossip from the Forest), chose to write a novelistic treatment of a real Holocaust story. Eldred-Grigg, however, has created a story and characters that appear to be composites derived from interviews and published sources; he chose to “universalise” both from the start. Where Keneally worked from the secure ground of identifiable people and circumstances, Eldred-Grigg set himself the more difficult task of writing a fiction that transcends the power and meaning to be found in the authentic first-person accounts.

Despite its length, the book moves along. It is written in a readable, realist style and inevitably we want to know what happens: the story starts in the Berlin spring and summer just before the war in 1939, and we know it can only end in disaster. How do the women cope with what is about to hit them? Who survives and who doesn’t? Eldred-Grigg uses a cumulative narrative technique to slowly build up the picture of life in Berlin amid rising destruction, deprivation and horror. His environmental and social detail is excellent, if a little narrow. For none of his characters appear to have had any experience outside Berlin – not even a holiday to the Spreewald or Baltic coast. Also, the river, lake and canal character of Berlin is largely absent, and there is little to give the sense of the great victory parades and euphoria of 1940.

To make the people and their lives more “real” to English-speaking readers, there is not one word of German in the book – always the Leader, for example, and never the Führer – and the names of the characters are easily
assimilable. His main character, Betty, might have come from just down the road (but across the tracks). In dialogue, English colloquialisms such as “You reckon?” or “A sight for sore eyes” are “translations” to validate German conversation.

The characters take time to develop in the round of humdrum lives subject to increasing stress and danger. While one can feel sympathy for their situation, there is no-one here a reader can warm to unreservedly. Betty is stoic but unimaginative and loyal to the party line until very late; she does not like sex or her husband Arnold very much; and she dislikes her mother Klara, who is admirable in her bloody-minded awfulness. Sister-in-law Else is a kind of battling Cockney who is not going to make it. The men in the story are absent, pathetic or useless. Yet much could have been drawn from contrasting and connecting the disappearing lives of Betty and Arnold in their separate worlds of horror. I wondered quite early on why this story had been fictionalised and, at about the three-quarter mark, felt that the steady accumulation of events over the years seemed to have become the compilation of a scenario waiting for a story and fully developed relationships. While this may be Eldred-Grigg’s point – that nothing can develop under the impress of total war – the novel never quite transcends its material.

At the end, Betty is in Berlin as the Russians enter the city to inflict its final destruction, while her young daughter Hilde is safe with a farming family somewhere to the east, symbolising the new and innocent life that will arise from the ruins. But would Betty have allowed herself to be separated from her child at this cataclysmic moment when Hilde’s farmhouse would have been directly in the path of a Soviet army that brought looting, rape and starvation in its wake? And the great redemptive years are missing – when the survivors came out from the cellars and set about stacking those bricks: “Our Berlin will be beautiful like never before!”

A note about the publication of this novel: Kaput! has been published in America by the electronic/print-on-demand (POD) publisher 1stBooks. It can be read on-line or downloaded for about $NZ16-$17; or a paperback can be ordered via the Internet from the publisher or a book supplier, the delivered cost being $45-$50. It is not available through New Zealand bookshops. This method of publication potentially gives authors instant access to a world readership and is a useful alternative for those finding publication difficult in the small New Zealand market. It may be some time, however, before production standards or contract conditions for such publications equal those of the books issued by orthodox publishers.

 

Philip Temple is a Dunedin writer who has published a novel set in Berlin, To Each His Own (1999).

 

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