BOOK REVIEW: :OFF THE SHELF: In the prison of paranoia

Derek Severn on a cathartic novel first published in 1969
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The Independent Culture
Publishers ransacking past lists in search of writers undeservedly forgotten occasionally come upon a neglected masterpiece. RC Hutchinson's Johanna at Daybreak (Allison and Busby, £6.99) - the work of a novelist more Russian than English in tempe r - isone of these.

Like much of Hutchinson's work, it is set in a Europe which has been torn apart by war, and it is a novel that no one else could have written or would have dared to attempt in the same way. It is a study of the predicament of a single piece of human wreckage left behind by the Second World War.

Middle-aged, highly intelligent, ghostlike and guilt-ridden, Johanna von Leezen (as she calls herself) exists - one cannot call it living - in total amnesia in the physical and mental limbo of a home for displaced persons. Half-formulated terrors lunge at her through the mental fog with which she has blotted out both her identity and an action which she cannot bear to recall. She believes herself to be under constant surveillance: every innocent question, every trifling act of kindness seems a trap as she waits for the moment when, having completed their dossier, unknown accusers will bring her to trial on a capital charge whose nature she does not know.

Hutchinson's mastery of the art of gradual revelation shows itself not in any change in Johanna's perceptions - she is locked in a self-constructed prison without doors or windows - but in the reader's growing awareness that this is all self-delusion, t hat her identity has been known from the beginning, and that her pretended friends are true friends after all. We see what she cannot accept - the immense charity behind the owlish regard of the superintendent of the home, the discreet attempts to lead her to face the question of her identity, the boundless compassion that watches over her when the blindfold is brutally stripped away.

The moment one form of isolation is ended another replaces it, for it is a measure of Johanna's uncompromising integrity - and of Hutchinson's profound perception - that she cannot accept compassion because she cannot forgive herself.

Dramatic irony counterpoints a great deal of this novel, but it is inherent in the story, not in the presentation: Johanna has been plunged into this predicament through love, and it is through love that her Via Crucis leads at last towards resurrection.Hers is a heroic story, and at the end, which is a new beginning, we have been purged by pity and terror, and feel a sense of awe, of reverence for a spirit which can survive such suffering without bitterness.