And though the calendar appeared to be continuing its slow plod whenever she checked it, Margaret was dogged by a particular sensation. She felt that somehow, somewhere along the way when she had not been paying careful attention (and how could she have been so heedless?). Time had come to an end. Now it was only a matter of a short interval before the world faded out entirely. Sometimes she was even gripped by a strange suspicion, unlikely as it seemed, that every last thing was already gone. All that now met her ears and eyes was a vestigial flare or after impression, like the shape of the sun burnt on the retina.
So in that case, the logical (and yet also illogical) conclusion was this: the more she looked, the less there was left to see. To observe was to eat. She had to ration.
This was difficult, as everything burned terribly brightly. The Berlin street came shining to her, whore for attention that is was, offering up this face, that reference, and it was all a magic lantern show, cheap and profligate. She began to feel, in a hallucinatory kind of way, that brightness and time were competing siblings, tugging resentfully at each other’s realms. Brightness was winning. The brighter the city burned, the more time as a linear ray exhausted its last dregs and died. And conversely, the more time narrowed and dropped off for reasons of its own, the brighter everything became.
It all filled Margaret with dread. She tried to control the terror of the conquering brightness. First with the tours in the morning, in this period of convalescence, the twinkling past was an opiate. But afterward, in the afternoons, the dread returned and she was forced to distract herself. (pg. 9)
In Ida Hattemer-Higgen’s debut novel, a young lady awakes in a forest outside of Berlin. She is dirty, covered in leaves, and has no memory of the past few months. Margaret Taub returns to her Berlin apartment and begins to display some alarming symptoms – “With no one did she mention how the city’s past was dancing before her eyes, not any of her more alarming symptoms, which had to pop up, one after the other.” (pg. 8). Although Margaret feels unsettled, she continues to work at her job leading historical walking tours of the city concentrating on the Nazi era.
Two years later, Margaret receives a letter telling her she has an appointment with a gynecologist who seems to know her, although the Doctor calls her by a different name – Margaret Taubner. The Doctor says she will help Margaret recover her memories of what happened showing her a short film clip. After the visit, Margaret’s symptoms deepen and expand. For example, the cities buildings have all turned into flesh and she sees a menacing bird woman following her. Margaret becomes fascinated with Magda Gobbels, the wife of Hitler’s propaganda minister, trying to understand Maida’s actions during the closing days of the war. Margaret descends further into madness, abandons her research into trying to understand Magda and becomes obsessed with a Jewish couple who were faced with deportation as well as an old man who was a guard at Hitler’s bunker. In Margaret’s journey to recover her memory we learn about her parents and her sexual relationship with an old friend of her father’s. All of this is punctuated with Margaret’s surreal thoughts and the images she sees on her quest for answers.
This is a book about searching – searching history, searching for reasons, for meaning, for truth, for memory, for innocence, a search that takes place on an individual level and yet reflects onto the bigger picture of Germany and the aftermath of WWII. How do you deal with the memories of bad experiences? Is it better to not reflect and to only look forward? What is the value in looking back?
I was wrong to remember. To remember is wrong. Memories – true or not, enactments of any kind, attempts at experience inside the head, play acting with neurons hidden behind the bones of the skull, are he enemy of life. (pg. 183)
I found this book difficult to read which, I think, was due to the madness eddying around Margaret. I had a period in my life where I suffered from a deep depression so this hit a little close to home. I tried everything while reading to keep some sort of foundation under me – time outlines, extensive notes because I couldn’t let myself let myself go and just flow with Margaret’s thought process and experiences.
Even though the novel was written in English, there were times I felt I was reading a work that had been translated. The author speaks several languages and it may have been her intent in order to add to the “stranger in a strange land” feeling. The book is full of images, symbols, stories that my reading seemed over burdened. I found some of the metaphors convoluted that I got lost. Other times there were so many images swirling around it became hard to understand what the author was trying to emphasize. Again, that may have been Hattemer-Higgins intent in order to mimic the surreal disarray that surrounds someone in such an unsettled mental state; even so, I found it very disquieting.
Would I recommend this book – yes, cautiously. While I did have a difficult time reading it, it is a book that has grown on me after I finished it. The things that bothered me while I was reading seem to be an intrinsic part of the atmosphere the author wish to create, however the atmosphere remained unsettling. I think the author has something to say and, for the most part, she says it well. You just need to know the ride may be a little bumpy.
What is amazing is that going over my notes I came across two quotes that summed up my reading experience:
Margaret tried to calm herself. It was the burden of secrets that was making her crazy, she thought. To have all the pictures playing in her head, but trying to follow one single string of speech – it would drive anyone mad. (pg. 112)
Theoretically at least, she would have liked to give a realistic picture and leave it at that. But there was a problem: there was no realistic picture to return to. No one knew how it really had been. No one could ever know. Even the survivors who had lived to tell the tale did not entirely know how it had been; the experience was too large for that. There are magnitudes of suffering that cannot be held in the mind. So there was a camp, and there was a “tour”, and one was bigger than the other and would always be bigger. (Margaret’s thoughts while giving a concentration camp tour – pg. 107)
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