Fiction rarely divides like Holocaust fiction. All the energy and inventiveness in the world may not be enough if a writer is suspected of treating such an enormous subject with insufficient humility.
This is the minefield, albeit clearly demarcated, into which Ida Hattemer-Higgins's debut novel boldly strides.
A History of History begins in 2002, when a young American tour guide in Berlin awakes with a gap of "several months" in her memory. She thinks little of it, until a letter arrives inviting her to a doctor's appointment that she doesn't remember making. The doctor, calling herself a "memory surgeon", shows Margaret Taub an inscrutable black-and-white film. At this point, the story takes a turn for the hallucinatory: when Margaret wakes up the next morning, the buildings of Berlin have all transformed into flesh – "the apartment houses running up ... Wilhelmstrasse appeared moist and pink-shadowed, mouths, ear canals, nostrils".
This surprising development is, we are led to understand, a manifestation of Germany's "unresolved" national traumas and, in particular, the psychic aftershocks of the Holocaust. From here on, "the city's past dancing before her eyes", the protagonist embarks on a magical-real quest into the heart of 20th-century Europe's darkness. It consists mainly of visiting national archives and investigating the story of Magda Goebbels, the wife of Hitler's propaganda minister.
A clear and even prose style can help the inexplicable attain power; think of any Kafka story. But Hattemer-Higgins's elected voice consists of a dizzying mix of gnomic utterances, archaic constructions and confoundingly clever metaphors. At times it is so wilfully dainty, with phrases such as "the morning was no longer in its early tooth" and "[she] was becoming afraid again, but after a new style", that it resembles a bad translation. Rather than see to this, or other, basic considerations (the characterisation is also slapdash, and the plot does not so much unfold as lurch from one inexplicable event to another), the author simply shouts at us to go along with it: "But this thing that happened – it must be believed."
Finally, dubiously aligning Margaret's troubles with those of Holocaust victims – each suffering a "rage [that] has too long been impotent" (Margaret's being to do with a failed relationship), and each therefore "vulnerable to fantasies of vengeance" – Hattemer-Higgins has Margaret determine to murder an elderly former SS officer, claiming his continued "existence is a travesty".
This strange and uneven work might simply be written off as an oddity, were it not for the subject matter. As it is, I fear it could come in for something worse.Reuse content