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.

Book of the month: Nathacha Appanah

One of the mind-expanding things about reading literature from elsewhere is seeing historical events presented from unfamiliar angles. When you read novels and memoirs that touch on things that have strong prevailing narratives in your home country (British Empire, I’m looking at you), it can be illuminating, thought-provoking and challenging to encounter perspectives that turn what you thought you knew on its head. Sometimes, stories from other traditions can reveal episodes of which you may have been entirely ignorant.

My latest Book of the month, The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, translated by Geoffrey Strachan, is a good example. Telling the story of an unlikely friendship, it is built around the tragic, true-life story of a boatload of Jewish refugees who, having been refused entry to Palestine after fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, were detained on Mauritius for most of the second world war. The novel is narrated by Raj, who, in old age, looks back at the brief but life-changing bond he formed with David, a young boy in the prison camp at which his violent father got a job in 1944, when Raj was nine. Grieving for the siblings he lost in a natural disaster, Raj comes to look on his new friend as a replacement brother – feelings that give rise to consequences it takes him a lifetime to lay to rest.

The narrative voice is beguiling. Laying bare the ‘electric shock of memories’, it weaves between the present day and the past that forms the bulk of the action, finding deft ways to make long ago feel fresh and immediate. A forest path now buried beneath an apartment block serves as a symbol for the hidden influence of past events, while Raj’s reflections on his relationship with his son provide a powerful comparison for his cruel treatment at his own father’s hands.

There is a lovely reticence to much of the writing, which renders it very moving. The novel is so full of tragedy that it could easily be relentlessly sad. Instead, Appanah and Strachan hold back at the most traumatic moments, allowing spare language, rhythms and dramatic irony to do the heavy lifting. Insights into the way human beings change and the impact of violence are delivered with such beautiful simplicity that it is often as though the writing is transparent, letting us look straight through into the truths it contains. Instead of detailing Raj’s family’s poverty, the author allows us to glimpse it through his surprise at the smart, white building described as a ‘HOUSE’ on his reading card at school and how different this is from what he understood the term to mean.

There is some lovely playfulness too. Raj’s childhood naivety, which, among many other things, leads him to assume for a while that David’s hometown of Prague must be somewhere on Mauritius, is very endearing and makes the denouement all the more poignant.

These disarming elements allow Appanah to play with some radical notions. With Mauritius’s usual racial power dynamics subverted by virtue of David’s prisoner status – ‘We did not mix with the white people of our country, we hardly ever saw them,’ explains Raj – the novel is able to explore notions of cultural appropriation in a fresh and thought-provoking way. We see Raj agonising about whether he has the right to tell his white friend’s story and his uneasiness about his lack of entitlement to draw conclusions about his feelings and suffering. In this, Appanah neatly dramatises the dilemma so often faced by authors when they contemplate writing stories involving traumas they have not experienced, particularly those of people from more marginalised groups.

There are some abrupt transitions that may seem jarring. Similarly, although reticence pervades the narrative, there are moments when things are stated explicitly that another writer might have left readers to infer. The deftness of the writing in much of the book, however, suggests that these potential trip-hazards for anglophone readers may well be indicative of cultural differences in approaches to pacing and what needs to be explained rather than unintended flaws.

Overall, this is a moving and engrossing exploration of grief, survivor’s guilt and the way that global history touches individual lives. Poetic writing and sharp insights simply delivered make this a surprising, important and memorable book. Well worth a read.

The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan (MacLehose Press, 2011)

Picture: ‘Jewish Cemetery, Mauritius’ by Phoebe Epstein on

Liechtenstein: the long way round

Just after I’d finished reading this book, I had an email from a Liechtenstein publisher. ‘Now who recommended the Liechtenstein authors to you?!’ he wrote. ‘That’s embarrassing!’

I assume the reason for his embarrassment was that the only two authors with named books on the list were non-native residents of Liechtenstein – the German thriller writer CC Bergius and the Austrian explorer and mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, a controversial figure who joined the Nazi party shortly before the outbreak of the second world war. Yet, as I tried to explain in my response, there was method in the apparent madness of these suggestions, and it went something like this:

The search for a story from the tiny principality of Liechtenstein began with an email to a friend of a friend from the country, who suggested I contact an old teacher of hers who was involved with PEN-Club Liechtenstein. Sadly, the email address she gave me no longer seemed to work and my inquiries bounced straight back at me.

Time for plan B: I’d heard that a Liechtenstein author, Iren Nigg, had won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2011. Perhaps some of her work would be available in English? I dropped her a line and she very kindly responded. She was sorry, but other than the extract of her work in the prize-giving booklet, nothing had been translated yet. She attached the extract in case it was suitable for the project, but if I was looking for a complete work in translation, she recommended I contact her friend writer Stefan Sprenger (there’s a great interview with him about Liechtenstein literature on the Dalkey Archive Press website).

I emailed Sprenger but it was the same story with him. Although he had had some isolated pieces translated, none of his books were available in English in their entirety. To his knowledge, the only Liechtensteiner who had had a whole book translated into English in recent years was Prince Hans Adam II  von und zu Liechtenstein. His political treatise, The State in the Third Millennium, would not count for my purposes unless, he joked wryly, I were willing to consider it as a horror story.

Failing that, Sprenger suggested emailing Dr Peter Gilgen, a Liechtenstein academic specialising in literature and philosophy at Cornell University in the US. If anyone would know of Liechtenstein work available in English Sprenger warranted Gilgen was the man.

Gilgen came back with a full and thoughtful reply. No book-length Liechtenstein prose translations came to mind but he did know of a prose-poem, The Gravel by Michael Donhauserwhich was translated into English as a freestanding work some years ago. However, given that this was hard to find and not a prose work as such, he would like to suggest Bergius and Harrer, as both writers lived for many years in the principality. Indeed, Harrer, who claimed to be ashamed of his Nazi involvement in later life, was a member of PEN Liechtenstein and wrote his most famous work, Seven Years in Tibet, while living in the state.

And so it was, as I explained to my indignant correspondent, that I had included Bergius and Harrer on the list. However, if he could recommend another Liechtenstein work that I could read in English, I would be delighted to consider it.

Several weeks later, I have not heard anything further. And so, taking the risk that an email may be winging its way to me even now and hopeful that this post may winkle out some full-length Liechtenstein fiction for us Anglophone readers to enjoy, I am writing on Harrer’s memoir Seven Years in Tibet.

Given the tortuous route I’d taken to get to it, Harrer’s book about his attempt to make his way into the closed world of Inner Tibet felt like a rather appropriate read. Starting with his internment in and repeated escape attempts from an Indian prisoner of war camp at the outbreak of the second world war, the memoir charts Harrer’s flight into the country and his eventual arrival in the capital Lhasa, despite the best efforts of the Tibetan people, the hostile landscape and the occasional bear and leopard to stop him. Building a life in a society not thought to have been visited by Westerners before, Harrer and his companion Peter Aufschnaiter fell in love with the peaceful country and Harrer was even appointed to be a private film tutor to the young Dalai Lama, until the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1949 forced them to return to Europe.

Harrer’s matter-of-fact accounts of his feats of derring-do are the secret of the book’s success. Whether he’s enduring recapture by the British, outwitting a band of Tibetan Khampas (robbers)* on a lonely plain, or chasing a run-away yak in sub-zero temperatures, the writer remains stoic and restrained, observing after one disastrous episode with the Indian police, ‘we learned from this adventure a bitter but useful lesson’. Indeed, it’s impossible not to be impressed by his meticulous approach to each challenge and his dauntlessness in the face of countless setbacks. I found my fingers itching to write ‘stiff upper lip’ in the margins several times, before I remembered that this was not a British book and that the writer, had he been in Europe instead of South Asia during the years he describes, would most likely have been doing his best to make a number of stiff upper lips tremble.

Harrer’s insights into  Tibetan culture are, for the most part, fascinating. From polyandry among herders and the ‘burial’ practice of smashing a body up and leaving it out to be eaten by the birds, to the strange communication arrangements you have to make in a country that is not a member of the Universal Postal Union if you want to send a letter to the outside world, Harrer’s descriptions are engrossing and his love for the country is clear.

That said, the book is very much of its time – and of Harrer’s own prejudices. Sweeping and often patronising generalisations abound about Tibetans being ‘a happy little people full of childish humour’, their music having ‘no harmonies’, and their women, who ‘know nothing about equal rights and are happy as they are’.

But perhaps such a cast-iron belief in your own judgments and opinions is what it takes to be a pioneer. A more circumspect individual might have decided, on balance, that it was best to stay in the POW camp and wait out the war. I’m very glad he didn’t.

Seven Years in Tibet (Sieben Jahre in Tibet) by Heinrich Harrer, translated from the German by Richard Graves (Flamingo, 1994)

*As fellow literary explorer Bradley pointed out, while Harrer presents the Khampa people as robbers, they are in fact an ethnic group, so this is an unfair description.