Peirene, £8.99, 115pp £8.54 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Portrait Of The Mother As A Young Woman, By Friedrich Christian Delius, trans. Jamie Bulloch
Friday 17 September 2010
This is a novella written as a single sentence, the internal monologue of a German woman walking through occupied Rome in 1943 – in which nothing actually happens. Potentially a tough read? No: in the hands of German writer FC Delius (and his superb translator, Jamie Bulloch), this portrait of Delius's young, pregnant mother is an eloquent, elegant stroll. As she walks, she thinks and observes Rome; her thoughts units of ideas. Delius is at one with her, in her head, in her belly: he is the unborn baby.
The 21-year-old Margherita is "a country girl from Mecklenburg". Her father's a Protestant pastor; she marries Gert, also a pastor, and a soldier in the Wehrmacht. He is posted to Rome but, as soon as she joins him, deployed to Africa. She is stranded in this "alien city", naïve, lonely and speaking no Italian. By the end of her walk – from her room in a German old people's home to a concert in Rome's Lutheran Church – we feel we know her: an ordinary German who grew up under Nazism, once a member of the Hitler Youth Girls' League and now the wife of a soldier.
Hold on: shouldn't we feel uncomfortable, even hostile towards her? After all, she's married to a Nazi, she is brainwashed and ignorant about the Jews and Hitler's crimes. "Perhaps there were even Jews in Rome, she did not know," she thinks, and "poor Germany, surrounded by enemies".
Delius's delicate skill is in making us understand Margherita and her world, without irony or judgement. It's a moving portrait of a good, pious woman. Her naivety feels genuine and unforced. There is no apology; rather, a big question is subtly posed: to what extent were ordinary Germans complicit in Nazism? You decide.
My reaction is complicated. I know Germany and its difficult history well. So I am grateful to Delius for his insight and unsentimental portrait of his mother. She is, in the end, a conformist who chooses private life over public responsibility. Yes, she's "guilty" but I can't condemn her.
The final paragraphs, when she reaches the church - and the end of her walk through Rome - are soaring and moving, to match the music. As she listens to Bach, her mind is liberated from its controlled trot: "chorales must ring out day and night, and all the stops of the organs must be pulled out until the war was over... the whole of Europe must join in and sing". Portrait is a formidable achievement by a German writer too little known here. Delius understands the forces that shape Germany and has the gift to articulate joy, beauty and love.
A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend
A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Michael Brown shooting: Amnesty International sends team within US for first time as National Guard deployed
- 2 James Foley 'beheaded': Isis video shows militant with British accent 'execute US journalist' – and warns Obama of more to come
- 3 Reading Festival 2014: Tesco branch replaces salad and potatoes for Jagermesiter and vodka
- 4 Here’s the damning letter Robin Williams wrote to his Mrs Doubtfire co-star's principal after they expelled her
- 5 Ferguson protests: 90-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein ‘arrested’ by police during St Louis demonstrations
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness
JK Rowling releases new Harry Potter story on Pottermore: Introducing Celestina Warbuck, the 'Singing Sorceress'
Best movies on Netflix UK and US: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
Reading Festival 2014: Tesco branch replaces salad and potatoes for Jagermesiter and vodka
Kate Bush: Previously unseen photographs reveal new side to comeback star
Isis threat: Cameron wants an alliance with Iran
Crisis? What crisis? A visiting US doctor gives the NHS a rave review
Ukip MEP calls for reintroduction of death penalty on fiftieth anniversary of last deaths
Russell Brand calls for Israel boycott: Comedian urges big businesses that 'facilitate the oppression of people in Gaza' to pull funding
Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head
World peace? These are the only 11 countries in the world that are actually free from conflict