Book of the month: Anonymous

Does the identity of an author change how we read a book?

In some cultures, this question would make little sense. In many oral storytelling traditions (with examples on this blog including books I read for the Marshall Islands and Niger during my 2012 quest), the notion of authorship, and the distinction between fact and fiction are fairly irrelevant. 

For those of us immersed in the anglophone tradition, however, these issues often matter a great deal. A few years ago, I found myself sitting on a funding committee trying to decide whether to give a grant to a publisher planning to bring out a translation of a collection of stories thought to have been written by an author inside North Korea. For many around the table, the question of whether the manuscript really had been smuggled out of the totalitarian state was the key factor in deciding whether or not to award the money. (The book got the grant in the end and Deborah Smith’s translation of Bandi’s The Accusation came out in 2017, featuring a note from publisher Serpent’s Tail making it clear that it was impossible to be 100 per cent certain of the book’s origins.)

As a writer, I find this focus on author identity troubling. The purist in me would like to believe that a work speaks for itself. In the Bandi discussion, I was firmly on the side of supporting the grant on the basis that the extract I read was well written, thoroughly imagined and fresh, regardless of who wrote it.

Yet I keep encountering questions books that challenge this approach. And when it comes to stories that are supposed to be factual accounts, things get even more complicated.

My latest Book of the month is a case in point. Published in Philip Boehm’s translation in the early 2000s, more than forty years after it first appeared in the US and then in Germany, the anonymously authored A Woman in Berlin throws up so many questions about identity and the relationship between who we are and what we tell.

On the face of it, the book is a diary, recording the experiences of a thirty-something-year-old Berlin woman between 20 April 1945, shortly before the death of Hitler, and 22 June 1945, by which time life under Allied rule had begun to assume some sort of shape. Written with extraordinary frankness, the text documents the horrors that unfolded over those two months, as Russian troops drew closer and captured Berlin, looting and laying waste, and subjecting hundreds of women to repeated assaults and rapes.

The subject matter is as extraordinary as it is harrowing. The early entries crackle with sickening tension as civilians await their fate. Everyday details about the business of surviving in a besieged, war-torn city under a failing regime – fetching water, scavenging for firewood, finding that tokens have been introduced to make people ineligible to board the collapsing tram system – dominate, making the flashes of foreboding all the more shocking by contrast. Along with the narrator, we live through the tedium and terror of those last few days of life as she’s known it.

When the crisis comes, and the Russians arrive and begin to wreck havoc, the writing rises to meet it. By turns arresting in its frankness and powerful in its omissions, it brings home the full force of the horrors it presents. Unflinching accounts of individual attacks exist alongside euphemistic references to bed sheets needing a wash ‘after all those booted guests’. 

A novel might have stopped there, after the first wave of atrocities, and jumped forward to a later stage in the protagonist’s life, attempting to present some sort of resolution or assimilation of these experiences. But, this being a diary, the entries continue, one horror piling upon another as the weeks grind by. And as they do so, they reveal extraordinary things: humour, resilience, the strange camaraderie that collective trauma brings. The women share jokes and commune with one another’s suffering, often without needing to rehearse what they have been through, and we learn with them how shared experience creates an understanding that transcends words.

There are extraordinary reflections on the human condition and the larger significance of these events too. Consider this passage, in which the narrator writes about the struggle to find meaning and a reason to carry on in the face of the loss of almost all she once held dear:

‘I long ago lost my childhood piety, so that God and the Beyond have become mere symbols and abstractions. Should I believe in Progress? Yes, to bigger and better bombs. The happiness of the greater number? Yes, for Petka and his ilk. An idyll in a quiet corner? Sure, for people who comb out the fringes of their rugs. Possessions, contentment? I have to keep from laughing, homeless urban nomad that I am. Love? Lies trampled on the ground. And were it ever to rise again, I would always be anxious I could never find true refuge, would never again dare hope for permanence.

Perhaps art, toiling away in the service of form? Yes, for those who have the calling, but I don’t. I’m just an ordinary labourer, I have to be satisfied with that. All I can do is touch my small circle and be a good friend. What’s left is just to wait for the end. Still, the dark and amazing adventure of life beckons. I’ll stick around, out of curiosity, and because I enjoy breathing and stretching my healthy limbs.’

The historian Antony Beevor writes in his introduction that the diary’s literary merit has been one of the reasons people have questioned its authenticity, citing the striking images the writer often uses as stumbling blocks that make some readers doubt its provenance. In actual fact, it’s not the images but the perspective that sometimes looms through the writing that is problematic. There is an expansiveness in some of these reflective passages that challenges the notion that they were written day by day in the thick of the events they describe. The level of analysis and self-awareness the writer achieves sits awkwardly with the image of her scribbling frantically in a notebook disguised as an aide-memoire for Russian vocabulary to prevent the conquerors from destroying it.

The afterword from the German editor goes some way to explain this tension: the diary was not published as it was originally written but reworked and edited by its author in the years before its first publication. Many of those more expansive, longer-lensed reflections may well have been developed after the fact. 

Had the author wanted to be involved in the republication of her work, several decades after its initial, patchy reception, it is conceivable that she might have reworked it further into the through-written memoir that seems to hover just below the surface here. Yet, it is understandable that she preferred not to rake over the coals of what must have been a painful publishing experience – although it is a shame she did not live to see the impact her words had on the world when the book was finally rereleased. 

Is the diary genuine? I can’t be sure. But perhaps this is fitting. Maybe a text that goes so much to the heart of identity should not sit snugly in the form assigned to it. Is this what people are? this book asks. Is this is what we turn out to be made of when every last social grace and nicety is stripped away? Maybe no form of storytelling can adequately contain these questions.

A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous, translated from the German by Philip Boehm (Virago, 2018)

Picture: ‘Imagen tomada durante la ocupación soviética de Berlín’ by Claude753 on Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.

Germany: now and then

The question of who decides which of the many millions of books in other languages make it into English has fascinated me since I started to plan this project to read a book from every country in the world in 2012. As confirmed by a recent seminar on ‘Gatekeepers’ at the London Book Fair’s Literary Translation Centre, it’s a complex chicken-and-egg sort of issue that depends on who you think drives trends in publishing – publishers, readers, critics, translators or someone else entirely?

One person who was also at the Gatekeepers seminar was translator Katy Derbyshire (although I didn’t know this until a former colleague, translator Cathy Kerkhoff-Saxon, introduced us a few weeks later and we made the connection). Based in Berlin, Derbyshire has recently set up a book group for publisher And Other Stories, a small indie house that prides itself on sourcing great literature from some way off the beaten track.

The purpose behind the group, as she explained to me, is to use German literature fans to assess titles and recommend which ones the company should sign up for English translation. And Other Stories is, as far as she knows, the first publisher to work in this way and since the company was founded in 2010 it has built a reputation for putting out high-quality and innovative titles. Now Derbyshire hopes that her group of around 13 exchange students, translators and writers (most of them not native German speakers) will contribute to the growth of the company’s list by picking out works different to the clichéd German ‘Nazi novels’ that many UK publishers lean towards.

The connection with Derbyshire was doubly surprising because And Other Stories had sent me one of the first books she translated for them only a few weeks prior to the London Book Fair. With the powers that be seemingly conspiring to steer me towards this particular title, it seemed perverse to choose anything else.

Peopled with outsiders and underdogs, Clemens Meyer’s Leipzig Book Fair Prize-winning short story collection All the Lights puts society’s misfits centre stage. From the boxer on a losing streak to the unemployed loner whose world has shrunk to the letters he receives describing a long-lost friend’s adventures in South America, the characters in Meyer’s universe are all diminished, saddened versions of their younger selves, often set against the unforgiving backdrop of post-unification East Germany.

Many have retreated into paranoia, as in ‘The Shotgun , the Street Lamp and Mary Monroe’, in which a mentally ill addict mutters to himself in the living room up the hall from the bedroom where his girlfriend lies, ominously still:

‘I need a strong heart so I don’t go back to my shoes. In my shoes, out in the hall. I’ve hidden something in there under the orthopaedic insole, it’s a sort of emergency supply, but I don’t need it anymore, I’ll chuck it down the toilet later and flush it away, but actually an emergency supply’s only for a real emergency, and I’m sure that won’t happen now, and if it does I’ll stick it out, so I might as well just leave the stuff in my shoe.’

Meyer’s minimalist style (rendered through Derbyshire’s deft translation) enables him to cram words with significance, changing the mood in a clause and sketching a backstory in a sentence. This means that he can evoke extremely powerful and often surprising responses in the reader. ‘Of Dogs and Horses’, for example, in which we spend the story anticipating one kind of disaster only for the rug to be pulled from under us in quite another way in the final ten words, is devastating. Similarly, in ‘Fatty Loves’, we find ourselves in the unusual position of pitying a middle-aged teacher dismissed for an inappropriate relationship with a young girl.

This minimalism combines with a jagged chronology in which time jumps like a scratched record, hurling the characters back and forth between the present and the years gone by. With hints of missed connections between the stories – the same description of a girl’s teeth cropping up twice leading us to wonder whether the adult in one story is the same as the girl in ‘Fatty Loves’, familiar hints of the school sports field, and the humming of fridges in several lonely flats – this creates a powerful sense of wistfulness, as though other, better possibilities are forever unfolding slightly out of reach.

Once or twice the structure becomes a tad baggy as a result, as in ‘Riding the Rails’, the least successful story in the collection, in which a pair of ex-cons lose themselves in a rent-boy scam. For the most part though, it is incredibly skilfully handled.

Stuart Evers writes in his introduction that the stories reveal ‘the terrifying possibility of now’, but there is a sepia tint to Meyer’s lens that undercuts this statement. These tales take place in a world where people are woken by digital clocks rather than mobile phone alarms, where they make calls from phone boxes, write letters, and think in Deutschmarks, and where the tentacles of the internet have yet to penetrate. Seen in this light, the works are more about the tragic properties of ‘then’ than the possibilities of now. But Meyer’s achievement is to make that ‘then’ belong to all of us, whether we lived through it or not. Outstanding.

All the Lights by Clemens Meyer, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (And Other Stories, 2011)