by Ida Hattemer-Higgins
319 pages, Faber & Faber
Review by Marc Nash
This is a debut novel by an American author who has lived outside of the States most of her adult life. And she has written a quintessentially European rather than American novel. The book is subtitled 'A Novel of Berlin', one of her abodes and where she has worked as a walking tour guide through that city's troubled history, a conceit which lends itself perfectly to being employed to navigate us through the novel and the city both.
The novel starts with the main character Margaret Taub waking up after a short sleep to discover she is in strange clothes and has lost several months of memories from her recent past. Strangely enough this aspect is not really returned to throughout the book, though the disassociation implied by it takes centre stage as she traces a preternatural path through the city. She engages in a series of interactions with characters that reminded me of both Kafka's "The Castle" and Canetti's "Auto Da Fe.” Like I say: impeccable European credentials. There is also a hint of the heightened view through the central character's eyes of German Expressionist theatre such as Toller's "From Morn Until Midnight", though without the emphasis on it being an archetype rather than a fully-fledged psychological character. Her first port of call is a blind gynecologist who still proceeds to examine her, even though there appears to be a mix up over the name of the patient who has the appointment (again redolent of Kafka's "Josef K").
Margaret becomes obsessed with Magda Goebbels's decision to kill her five children in Hitler's bunker rather than allow them to be captured by the advancing Soviet army. She tries to enter Magda's mind, reads hagiographies and even encounters a ghostly representation of her that disturbs her notion of a sainted Mrs. Goebbels. She transfers her fascination for the loving maternal murderer to a Jewish wife within a mixed marriage, who again killed herself and her children rather than allow the Nazis to ship them out of Berlin to one of the camps. She tries to enter the woman's possible mindset and how she arrived at such a terrible decision. And that pretty much is the novel's plot as it all ties together, somewhat unsatisfactorily to my mind, by the end. But this is not really a novel of plot. The relationships that matter are not those in the present, but those in the past and Margaret's heightened investment in them.
The novel is flawed, but there is more than enough gems contained within it to make it more than a worthwhile read. Firstly there is no doubt it's an interesting way into the history of Berlin in the twentieth century, particularly its war years, and some of the writing about the Jewish mother's tortured thought processes and the changing attitudes of the non-Jewish neighbours around her are wonderfully rendered. The head of steam built up in these sections in the last third of the book is remarkably strong and picks up the energy of the middle third which did sag somewhat as it deals with Margaret's own past loves and which were far less engaging.
But you should know me as a reviewer by now. I demand a mental as well as an emotional challenge within my fiction. And there are without doubt some really profound meditations going on in The History of History. Try this one for size "there are two types of disappointment: disappointment in oneself and disappointment in God. In other words: self-hatred and alienation." But the novel really serves as an inquiry into storytelling, the myths of history, of place, of identity. And intriguingly the novel denounces storytelling, including its own fiction within, as the great artifice, "the great falsifying agent at the disposal of the human mind". Mind blowing stuff and for me, what I took away from this accomplished and yet flawed debut.