I was halfway through Manja (tr. Kate Phillips, 2003. Manja: Ein Roman um 5 Kinder, 1938) this past week, when your book acquired a new poignancy for me. Do you know that eerie feeling, when we overhear a stranger on the bus or out passing by us in the street, and, by accident, what he is saying, at that precise moment, sounds just like what a character has said in the book you are reading? And then you cannot help but attach this otherwise unknown face to that character.
Well, that sort of happened to me this week – not with a character, though, but with the atmosphere portrayed in your book. As the novel conveys the many small ways in which the rise of Nazism, in the 1920’s and 1930’s, affected the lives of a group of five children and their families – well, you can sense I bring no good news here, when I say that the atmosphere you wrote about in your book seemed to double back the one outside, the one surrounding some of us nowadays, an atmosphere so thick with anger that we can almost touch it, as if walls were closing in around everyone.
Quoting Ilse Aichinger, one of my favourite Jewish writers – who, topping it all off, died this past week -, “the distance to the corner shops of childhood becomes unfathomable, immeasurable; the candy bars have changed. And change has changed.” This sense she beautifully conveys of something irretrievable, something lost, a kind of childhood but not quite – this sense is pretty close to what I felt about the atmosphere inside – and outside – your book.
The novel opens at the precise point where the story ends, in a chapter entitled The End As A Beginning. It’s 1933 and the Nazis have come to power. A group of children is meeting for the last time at the remains of a riverside house. They call it their “wall”. We don’t know yet what happened, but we have a sense that they have lost something, and that they will never meet again there. They will never go back to the place where they shared their childhood.
Then the story jumps to 1920, to the night when those children – Manja, Heini, Franz, Harry and Karl – were conceived. The turbulent Germany of the Weimar Republic is struggling to recover from the country’s defeat in World War I and the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles signed the previous year. Each conception scene provides an overview of the economic and ideological circumstances of their families, as well as a glimpse of each child’s character. “Supposing that their destinies had been packed away somewhere in the basket, like the red water bottles at their feet? And that one of them could be taken out and another put in its place. All had pink faces with sparse and mostly dark hair which would fall out later, and then more would grow, fair curls or smooth black hair. How much of what they were going to be was already in them? How much of what they would experience later was born with them?”
Hanna is waiting for her fiancé, Ernst, who had served at war, to return. Hartung is disturbed by his reflection on the mirrors surrounding him as he enters his wife’s room – as if he felt trapped at the precise moment he was trying to escape his face, his past, himself – and the moment is followed by a cold coupling. Anton Meissner rapes his wife Frieda. Müller has just been sacked at work, and comes back home later to tell his wife Anna. Lea spends the night with a stranger, like it was a respite from the difficult years behind each of them – later this same night, this man will commit suicide. The descriptions of each scene are visual, vivid, at times sexually graphic.
From the beginning, you wrap the story up within the economic and political turmoil of those times. As each child’s life and personality unfolds, we also follow another unfolding: that of the early Nazi regime. It begins in the background, like a barely audible cursing or badly suppressed frustrations, a changing mood evoked here and there, and the ever-growing antisemitism lurking in the cracks of everyday interactions; then, it begins to grow slowly but perceptibly, as power shifts – like a concerto movement, surprising at first, but soon assimilated and normalized; and finally, a fortspinnung of sorts, the marching of the Hitler Youth’s boots outside a window, the legitimation of open violence, its rise already inexorable. As the book was published in 1938, the situation was already terrible enough, but, reading it in hindsight, we know we were yet to watch this concerto’s inommable and more than tragic end.
The first third of the novel is its strongest part. You took the time to minutely convey the many ways the First World War and the Depression shaped each family’s mindset and ideological allegiances. During the soaring inflation of the Depression years, Frieda Meissner, Franz’s mother, blames her prosperous Jewish neighbours for her struggles to make ends meet and her country’s humiliation after the war: ‘Jewish scum, taking baths in champagne.’ Anton Meissner, a committed Nazi, begins by taking part in secret anti-Semitic meetings, and later rises in the party ranks, becoming rich and influent. Müller, Karl’s father, is a communist factory worker who loses his job for being outspoken against injustices at work, and later is forced to go into hiding for his beliefs.
Max Hartung, Harry’s father, is a half-Jewish banker and ruthless businessman – the Nazi stereotype of a Jew. He is also the stereotype of the “anti-Semitic Jew”: married to an “Aryan” woman, and desperate do “assimilate” himself with the “German culture” – to the point where he hides his elderly father from visitors; neglects his own son in favour of the “Aryan” child his wife had after being raped by one of his acquaintances (a member of the old German elite); and blames what he calls “the Jews’ unwillingness to assimilate” for the anti-Semitism they are victims of. He strongly believes his money may protect him from the regime’s growing intolerance.
Ernst Heidemann, Heini’s father, is an idealist doctor who embraced liberal-humanism after having served as a soldier in the First World War. ‘After the war, you know, when we came home, I thought that what we had been through was finished, and wouldn’t come back, that it had gone forever, like a fire that has destroyed part of the world. People were burnt-out and sad, but at one time it looked as if the country had changed, had become wise and more humane. I don’t believe that anymore. It wasn’t true. Things went on smouldering. And now, slowly, it’s creeping back from all sides, now voices that were silent for a while are making themselves heard again, terrible frozen trumpets blasting out appalling tunes.’
Finally, David Goldstaub, Manja’s father, is a Jewish composer from Poland who went through pogroms when he was a child. When he meets Lea in a concert, he is already overcome by depression. Manja is conceived in this one-night stand, and he kills himself shortly afterwards. From then on, Lea, who is also Jewish, is set on a downward trajectory of poverty, discrimination, alcoholism, neglect and prostitution.
Yours is a dark novel of ideas – a genre which particularly flourishes under dictatorial regimes, where censorship forces the resorting to allegory to express ideas which could only be stated in an oblique way, as in a room of distorting mirrors. The characters – particularly the fathers – are clearly “types”. Each family represents one of the main political strands of the time. This artifice, made transparent from the beginning, only hinders the book at its final third, where complex ethical and existential ideas are mouthed, sometimes, by twelve-year-olds – which unveils the structure over which the plot is artificially built. For most of the book, though, this artifice is overcome by the vivid way in which the human interactions and tensions are portrayed. It is visual, beautifully written – and frequently reads like a theatre adaptation of itself. In the end, it seems like a combination of detailed realism and passionate idealism.
At the centre of the novel, as the reader is made to expect by its title, is Manja. She is also the centre of attention of her four friends: Heini, Franz, Harry and Karl. As their lives intersect, they pledge to regularly meet at “the wall”. As anger and violence tighten up around them, “the wall” is paradoxically the place where they can knock down all those walls closing in on them; a place of enchantment, where they can return to innocence, and to themselves; the wall, ‘a reef against which the flood of events impotently dashed itself’.
Manja, the poorest and the most vulnerable of the children, is the one who holds the group together. As the plot develops, we know this link will break sometime, as the growing violence around the children threatens to undermine their friendship – and as Manja becomes more and more an inconvenient connection. Their bond is at once strong and fragile, and that delicate combination lends it its unassuming, fleeting beauty.
As the novel progresses, the unfolding of the regime and its impact over the families and children become growingly disturbing: hate-mongering propaganda blames Jews for Germany’s economic depression and defeat in World War I; Meissner, who had longed for his country’s “regeneration”, is intent on taking revenge against Hartung; Hartung, on his part, ties to shield himself behind money and influence, and has a cynical approach to social values; Manja has lessons on “racially typical” features, and is taught that she is “racially inferior”; she is made to sit on the ‘Jewish bench’ in class, in the back of the room; she quickly learns that she should not marry her “Aryan” friend Heini, if she doesn’t want to “spoil his heritage” or “make him dirty”; she and Harry suffer bullying from their peers; young men in brown shirts greet each other ‘Heil Hitler’; children are made to learn terrifying songs at school (such as “Das Judenblut vom Messer spitzt, geht’s uns nochmal so gut” – “The Jews’ blood spurting from the knife makes us feel especially good”); Jewish businesses suffer boycott; good teachers lose their jobs; crimes committed against Jews are beyond the law.
You brilliantly convey how what had once been reputed unacceptable behaviour slowly is normalized; how the values once agreed upon are later cynically deemed elitist and hollow; and how the persecution of the Jews became active policy. Th fact that you do so through the perspective of five children only contributes to make the novel’s atmosphere even more disturbing.
And thus I come back to the topic I started this letter with: atmosphere. Anger, yearning for regeneration and restoration of an era long past; people shaming; for some, a sense of entitlement and of being beyond the law; contempt for social values (deemed as naïve, hollow, as mere self-expression of sanctimony, as empty obstacles to individual freedom, as mere tools of the ‘politically correct’) – we have all these elements here now. At the time you published your book, you could not fathom that the situation would progress towards an epilogue we cannot give a name to – Shoa, Holocaust, do we have a word which could express that which should never have happened? A word that should never have existed?
And yet, the values many today consider hollow and elitist are the only tools, fragile as they are, that we have against the immensity of that which should never have happened. The only means we have always had against this immensity are humble ones. Our bond, like Manja, is the most delicate, fleeting one. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”, as in Yeats’ poem, “the ceremony of innocence is drowned”.
We are locked in this room of distorted mirrors, so busy accusing one another, so eager to distil our anger and to be considered the right one, so quick to say I told you so, and so proud of our lack of true conviction; we are so busy that we have not seen the broken glass all around. It is already, and it has been for a long time, a crystal-clear night, and we are so cynical that we avoid to turn our eyes from the mirrors, we avoid to look at the centre of the room, because then we would see what was there all along, an ongoing shared struggle that is ours to take, hidden behind a question we should not dismiss as banal, since we know where banality has led us. It is a question we should have been discussing from the beginning: what we owe each other as human beings, and why.
This is the strangest letter, and I am sorry for that. Quoting Aichinger once again, “may it always cost the head as long as it does not cost the heart”.
‘I promise you, all that’s going to stop,’ said Heini. A thought, cold and hard as stone, took shape inside him and calmed him for the moment. ‘They didn’t dare before; now they do, that’s all,’ Manja said. Heini walked gloomily beside her with his head bent. The stone rolled and grew inside him.
– Anna Gmeyner, Manja
“There is not murder done tonight because there is no one to name the murderers. No one is lying motionless on the frozen ground with his face downwards. No one asks what is happening this night in all the streets, corners and remote woods everywhere in the country. It is a night without law. No crime because there is no accuser.”
– Anna Gmeyner, Manja
“His ideal was declared valid. The eternal barracks. A country in uniform, a nation standing to attention, set in line with what was lowest. He gathered up the husks of ruined truths and had changed them into glittering goods for mass consumption.”
– Anna Gmeyner, Manja
About the book
- Persephone Books, 2003, 526 p., tr. Kate Phillips. Goodreads;
- First published in 1938;
- Original title: Manja: Ein Roman um 5 Kinder;
- My rating: 4,5 stars;
- The book was written in London while the author was in exile, and first published in the Netherlands, under the pseudonym of Anna Reiner, for safety reasons;
- This book was read for German Literature Month VI.