Hazel McHaffie

Germans

Unsung heroism; disturbing challenges

I guess a lot of us have had more time for reflection and introspection during the last six months. I certainly have. So this was exactly the right time for me to read the kind of book that challenges me to think about my own moral compass and motivation and limits.

Under what circumstances would I, as a wife and mother, risk my life, or more importantly, my child’s life, to save a stranger? Would I let my young daughter starve to prove my loyalty to my country? Would I endure terrible deprivation, face imminent execution, to uphold my ideals? Would my faith in God survive seeing men, women and children being massacred needlessly; a whole race systematically eradicated? Could I live a life which meant I must lie to everyone I love, and always be afraid, never feel safe?

My kind of questions, you might think. But actually this was the kind of thinking that prompted Kristin Hannah to write her novel, The Nightingale.

She was researching World War II stories, and became fascinated by the women who had put themselves in harm’s way in order to save Jewish children, or downed airmen, some of whom paid a terrible, unimaginable price for their heroism. She simply couldn’t look away, and felt the underlying questions to be as relevant today as they were 70 years ago. As indeed they are.

Vianne and Isabelle Rossignol lose their mother to TB when 14 and 4 respectively. Consumed by his own grief, their father abandons them to the care of others. Outspoken Isabelle rebels everywhere she goes, is expelled from several schools, refusing to be either contained or controlled, and aged just 19, joins the resistance movement, initially delivering propaganda, then risking her life over and over again, escorting British and American downed airmen out of France across the Pyrenees to safety. Her code name is The Nightingale. Quieter Vianne marries her childhood sweetheart, Antoine, and after three miscarriages, gives birth to her daughter Sophie. She becomes a schoolteacher, and in the face of an ugly war and occupation of her beloved town in France, finds a courage of her own, rescuing Jewish children even whilst billeting German officers in her home.

We’ve all heard so much about the atrocities committed by the Nazis; much less of the heroism of the women of France. This book sees the 1940s through the prism of one family – totally harrowing, profoundly moving, reducing me to tears. And by homing in on the intensely personal, it seems somehow to shine a spotlight on the enormity of the whole monstrous period in history. It captures poignantly the contrast between the pain and suffering and barbarity, and the bravery and compassion, loyalty and selflessness of these courageous women, so often unseen and unsung.

The war forced people to look deep inside themselves; to examine who they were and what sacrifices they were prepared to make, what would break them. Asking ourselves those same questions 70+ years on is a challenging exercise. Even drinking a delicious cup of real coffee, knowing these women were enduring a vile brew made from acorns, made me feel chastened. Smiling and chatting to people I met out in the street felt like a luxury, when these women could trust no one – not even relatives and friends. Would I have had the courage to do the honourable thing? Or would I have found a way to argue that I had a greater duty to protect my own? I don’t know.

What I do know is that this book is a compelling read, though certainly not a comfortable one. At no stage can we have any confidence that there will be happy endings. Children die, women kill, men betray, families are ripped apart, suspicion is rife, humans behave barbarically. ‘Grief, like regret, settles into our DNA and remains forever a part of us.’

The Nightingale is superbly written, and I loved the occasional flashes forward to the present when one of the sisters is returning to Paris for a reunion of her compatriots who worked for the resistance, accompanied by her son who knows nothing of her past. We don’t know which one has survived, so this nicely preserves the tension. Whatever the outcome, these valiant women and those they represent, have my profound admiration and respect.

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The Undertaking

Imagine a book opening with consecutive sentences starting like this:
‘He …’
‘He …’
‘He …’
‘He …’
‘She …’
‘He …’
‘But he …
‘The ground …
‘He …’
‘The man …’

Yep, visions of primary school teachers underscoring with red ink imploring pupils to vary their structure … A-Level students receiving a begrudging scraping pass … a manuscript landing with an irritable thwack in the publisher’s waste bin, unread beyond the first page. Definitely a no-no in most people’s handbook of good writing.

And then there’s the complication of three German soldiers working alongside each other, sharing experiences and food, sharing a mission ‘to clear the communists and Jews from Russia‘ – all three surnames beginning with the same letter: Faber, Fuchs, Faustmann. Who thought that was a bright idea?

I could go on listing broken rules and yet … and yet … this book, The Undertaking by Irish author, Audrey Magee, was published by a reputable company, has been much lauded and admired, and was even shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Justifiably.

As reviewers have said it’s ‘An engaging and beautifully written novel, with an emotional resonance that remains long after you’ve closed the book‘; ‘A violent, elegant, unsentimental journey through hell and halfway back’; ‘A moving journey through the emotional hinterlands of grief and guilt.

The language is sparse, the structure simple, the dialogue pared to the bone. But immensely powerful. Set in the time of the Second World War it tells the story of a German soldier, Peter Faber, fighting on the Russian Front who marries a photograph of a woman he has never met in order to get leave and a reason to survive the atrocities of the Front. Hundreds of miles away in Berlin the woman, Katharina, marries a photograph of the soldier to qualify for a war widow’s pension. When they meet, to their surprise and wonder, love and passion blossom, and they start to dream of a bright future in a new and better Germany with the Nazis in control. But war tears them apart and they both separately endure the terrible consequences of destruction, humiliation and defeat.

Such is Magee’s skill with language that we can feel the lice crawling in Peter’s scalp, smell his rank odour after weeks of wearing the same sweat-soaked uniform, cringe with Katharina as he begins his courtship of her in this unsavoury state. We hear the venom in the voices of soldiers who hound innocent Jews from their hiding places. We watch in stunned silence as desperate brutalised men commit acts of barbarity against animals and humans alike, as they ransack homes, violate corpses, fight against the treacherous winds howling across the Russian steppes, all on the orders of their leaders safe at home in Berlin.

It’s salutary to learn what it felt like to be German during wartime, bombed by the allies, but rewarded richly for unquestioning loyalty, on the receiving end of the largesse left by the Jews, flagging spirits rallied with falsehoods and bribes. How would we have reacted to the pressures and promises, I wonder?

The men on the battlefields believe they are in hell; wives and mothers left behind in Germany believe their own lives are a form of hell too. It’s all relative. And perhaps there could be no happy outcome in the face of such obscene suffering and futility. How can either ‘side’ really appreciate the atrocities the other has seen and endured. Many were unspeakable. Rehearsing them would only perpetuate the nightmare. Even reading the pared down accounts creates a despairing hollow in the pit of one’s stomach. Nevertheless I was left feeling profoundly sad that a love that had sustained Peter and Katharina through so much pain and horror, in the end could not survive the shame and consequences of an experience completely outside of their control.

This was Audrey Magee’s first novel and it’s a brilliant, sweeping epic of a book that compels the reader to keep turning the pages, to watch helplessly as injustice and hate and human frailty destroy lives and devastate families. It’s far from comfortable reading but I highly recommend it. And how right she was to keep her sentences sparse and simple, give us the bare bones or moral bankruptcy without adornment. This is one occasion where the rule book needed to be consigned to an inaccessible shelf.

 

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