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.
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