Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The History of History by Ida Hattemer-Higgins

Amnesia, memory, madness and history. They would be the key words I would use if I had to try and describe this novel in single words. Luckily, I don’t because short, simple words can never do this complicated story justice. More precisely, the book is concerned with the effect of memory, or its absence, on humanity, and how memories, both personal and historical can affect a person’s state of mind. That’s a few more words, but it still doesn’t do it justice.

Margaret Taub emerges from a forest, tired, dirty and wearing men’s clothes with no knowledge of how she got there, what she was doing to get into that state, and no recollection of the previous six months of her life. However, she returns to her life, studying in Berlin, and conducting walking tours for tourists, taking in some of the key points of Berlin’s history. When, out of the blue, she receives a letter from an unknown Dr Araschebilis inviting a Margaret Taubner to an appointment, she decides to attend, if only to let this doctor know she must have the wrong person, but also to try and shed some light on her amnesia. It takes the whole of the novel for the shocking revelation to what Margaret was actually doing in the forest to emerge, and we witness the gradual degeneration of Margaret as she remembers and comes to terms with her own past, via an obsession with some specific historical characters from Berlins murky Nazi past.

Margaret has an in depth knowledge of Berlin’s history due to her studies at the university, which she puts to good use on her tours of Berlin. However, when the morning after her first appointment with the doctor, she wakes up to find all the buildings have turned to flesh, it is our first realisation that something is not quite right with Margaret. She becomes obsessed with Magda Goebbels, who infamously killed her six children in the bunker at the end of the war, and also with the history of Regina Strauss, a Jewish mother who killed herself and her three children in their kitchen to escape the camps. Her obsession centres on whether these killings were justified, or even ethically correct, and she is haunted by the ghost of Regina, and a representation of Magda as a half woman, half bird creature.

Margaret is a fairly disturbed character, but it is through her eyes we see Berlin, juxtaposed with memories of hr past coming back to her. Through Margaret’s disintegrating present, we see the history of the city, or at least the version she creates. As Margaret continues her tours, she glosses over certain facts, because she believes no tourist would know what to do with the information that Jewish prisoners availed themselves of the brothel services provided by female Jewish prisoners, who were then killed at the first sign of disease. She may be right there and I think this was one of he key points of the novel for me. Margaret is trying to reconstruct her past, just as the tourists on her walks are trying to recreate the Berlin of Nazi Germany. But this is never possible, as looking back filters history through your own particular lens, just as the tourists do, and just as Margaret does with her obsession with the characters of the time. The doctor who becomes Margaret’s guide through her delirium says

“You, my pet, are having an identity crisis that has become moral despair. It is impossible for the human animal to remember his or her own life without cleaving a line, a line of some kind, however capriciously zigzag lay, narcissistic, arrogant or, on the other hand, self-blaming and unforgiving, between right and wrong, credit and blame.”

As much as I enjoyed this book, I would have to say that I think a lot of the meaning went over my head. I’m sure it would benefit from a second read. That said, I don’t feel this detracted from what I did get from this book. The images created, whether they be of buildings turned to flesh, families committing suicide or playing cards with ghosts at the kitchen table were intense and beautifully portrayed. Margaret herself continues her tours of Berlin throughout most of the book, and the information given in the tours was illuminating both as information about Nazi run Germany and in light of Margaret’s situation. And as bizarre and odd as the book was at times, as the novel progresses, and the information about what actually happened to Margaret, or more precisely, what she brought on herself, becomes clear, it is heartbreakingly easy to see why she chose to forget those six months, and why her mental state deteriorated as she was forced to remember them.


farmlanebooks said...

I'm really pleased that you enjoyed this book too. It is my favourite book of 2011 so far :-) I agree that it could benefit from a second reading, but I think that just shows it's quality. I hope you can persuade a few more people to try this wonderful book.

Jo said...

Jackie, so do I. This book deserves a much wider audience.

Anna said...

This sounds fascinating. I like WWII novels that make me think. I'll link to your review on War Through the Generations.

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