Monday, November 28, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE WISH CHILD” by Catherine Chidgey (Victoria University Press, $45)

A couple of years back I watched on Youtube Claude Chabrol’s 1993 documentary film L’Oeil de Vichy (The Eye of Vichy).  With minimal explanatory commentary, it consists (almost) entirely of selections from newsreels and propaganda films made by France’s collaborationist Vichy regime between 1940 and 1944. If one were to believe this footage, one would believe that France was prospering under Marshal Petain, that there was no unemployment, that Nazi Germany was a benign ally, that the Allied cause was defeated and that resistance to the Vichy regime consisted only of a handful of criminals in foreign pay.

Chabrol was criticised severely in some quarters for not constantly showing and telling viewers that this was all propagandist fantasy, having no credible connection with what was really happening in France in those years. But Chabrol was a more cunning film-maker than his critics realised. What he was doing was showing the mentality of those who ran the collaborationist regime, and the influence they had. And he was banking on the sophistication of his viewers to realise that these old actuality films were untruthful. In the last ten minutes of his film he lifted the veil which the ancient propaganda had woven, and showed raw and undoctored footage of the retribution that came in 1944 as armed partisans turned on those who had collaborated, and the Vichy regime crumbled in shame and recrimination.

It took just those last minutes to expose how mendacious was everything that had gone before – but in the preceding hour-and-a-half, we had been able to share the delusions of an authoritarian regime.

This is a lengthy but, I hope, not irrelevant introduction to what I think Catherine Chidgey is doing in her novel The Wish Child. I will reverse my usual procedure and cut to a verdict at once. This is an extraordinary novel, written not only with a real and close understanding of the history which it fictionalises, but written in a way that enables us to get under the skin of people who thought and felt very differently from the way we think or feel. Like the very best of recent New Zealand historical novels (Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Paula Morris’s Rangatira, Charlotte Randall’s Hokitika Town and The Bright Side of My Condition and a few others), Catherine Chidgey avoids stereotypes. How did young Germans under the Nazi regime think? What did they dream of? What did they hope for or fear? Because dreams and fears come into it, there are moments of what amounts to surrealism and (as the author explains in her end-note) there are deliberate departures from the literal historical record. This novel is not a chronicle. As in Chabrol’s film, there is no overt preaching. Like Chabrol, Chidgey banks on her audience being informed enough to realise that how her main characters see the world often bears little resemblance to any objective historical reality.

With bookends of later history, the main narrative runs from 1939 to 1945. A young girl, Sieglinde Heilmann, lives with her middle-class family in Berlin, where her father is a respectable functionary. A young boy, Erich Kroning, lives with his farming family somewhere near Leipzig, part of the peasant class that Hitler’s Blut und Boden ideology so favoured. It is the experience of these two children that the novel follows, through chapters often titled with Nazi slogans or phrases  - “Strength Through Joy”, “Fuhrer Weather”, “You Too Belong to the Fuhrer” (the last being the slogan on a propaganda poster encouraging parents to enrol very young children in Nazi organisations). Inevitably, the main story runs from the first dizzy year of German victory, when Hitler was still extremely popular, to the final catastrophic disillusion as the Red Army pours through the bombed-out rubble of Berlin.

It is important that Sieglinde and Erich are children – vulnerable and “innocent” and therefore, more than their elders are, blank slates upon which regime propaganda may be written. Sieglinde is often puzzled or confused about what is happening around her. Erich is the innocent true believer in the Fuhrer. But there is a controlling irony to this novel in the disjunction between the perception of these children and what we (should) know. We (should) know that a monstrous regime is being depicted, but for the novel’s German middle-class and farming families, it is everyday normality. And for the children who are the novel’s most consistent witnesses to events, there are gaps which we, as readers, have to fill.

What is not known by the novel’s characters cannot intrude upon their thoughts. In one of the novel’s more Kafkaesque touches Sieglinde’s father Gottlieb Heilmann is employed excising inconvenient words from printed texts – words like “love”, “mercy”, “defeat”, “sorrow”, “promise” or “surrender”. He is the bureaucrat in a totalitarian regime whose function is to wash away possible subversive modes of thought. He is like the purveyors of “Newspeak” in 1984. Each chapter in The Wish Child is preceded with a text out of which key words have been chopped, rendering the texts either nonsensical or highly cryptic.

Chidgey represents common, uninformed (and rumour-filled) opinion with recurring dialogues between a Frau Miller and a Frau Muller, a perverse Greek Chorus of gossip.  They talk about Hitler’s speeches or working in a factory where busts of Hitler are made or children denouncing their parents or how hard it is to have rationed soap, always expressing both self-interest and the common prejudices of their time and place. They are the social milieu in which young Sieglinde lives. The propaganda that bears upon her directly is heard in another recurring device – the commentary of a schoolteacher who gives a Nazi spin to the guided tours of young schoolchildren through factories processing food, making radios or making toys.

Chidgey, well-versed in German literature and history, trusts her readers to pick up allusions which are not explained. Take the following example. Young Sieglinde is reflecting on a poem she has learnt at school:

At night her mask waits at the foot of her bed, and she listens to the siren and thinks of a golden comb slipping through lengths of golden hair. The poem comes to her as she lies listening – but it is not a poem, Fraulein Althaus has told them, it is a folk song, a traditional old German song written by nobody. Still, the children do not sing it, this old siren song, but recite the lines in unison, and at night they come to Sieglinde as she waits for the bombs to flash above her, jewels glimpsed from a little boat at the river’s deadly bend. O dark water.” (p.46)

If you are in the know, you will understand that the poem Sieglinde is thinking about is Heinrich Heine’s Die Lorelei. It was possibly the best-known poem in the German language and certainly the one that German schoolchildren learnt the way English schoolchildren learnt Wordworth’s Daffodils or French schoolchildren learnt Verlaine’s Chanson d’Automne. For the Nazis, the embarrassment was that Heinrich Heine, the great German lyric poet of the nineteenth century, was Jewish. Therefore in the Nazi years, this unignorable poem was palmed off as a “traditional” folk poem. (For a comment on what happened to Heine’s statue in Hamburg, see my post Unlaid Ghosts from July 2014).

Another allusion is the very title of the novel. The Wish Child was the title of a novel by Ina Seidel, very popular in Germany in 1930s, set in the Napoleonic wars and embracing a very Blut und Boden outlook. Catherine Chidgey turns this outlook upside down.

There are much more sinister unexplained allusions than this. In one sequence, the woman guiding children through a factory (pp. 140-141) warns them of the danger of poisonous mushrooms. This takes point if you already know that a widely-distributed Nazi book for children compared Jews to poison mushrooms. It is never explained (and never enquired into by adult characters) why there should be, in Berlin, so many auctions of household effects in houses of people who have been moved out. (“Which people?” we should ask alertly.) Whose clothes are being unpicked to find jewels sown in them? (p.148) From whom did the hair come which is being stuffed into mattresses and providing hair for toy dolls? (p.159) If, by this stage, you cannot hear echoes of cattle-trucks carting people off to death camps, then you have not got the measure of this book. Be it noted that Jews are scarcely mentioned, although in one nightmare image a Berliner Jewish couple complain that their apartment is getting smaller and smaller while their German neighbours’ apartment is getting larger.

I have said that Catherine Chidgey’s style is sometimes surreal. But paradoxically, some of the most surreal material is straight reportage. Think, for example, of a scene where a Nazi “wedding” is performed for a young woman whose betrothed is already dead. But then he died a German hero on the field of battle and she is of the right Aryan blood and so she has the right to a “wedding”. What could be more surreal than people getting used to the bodies being piled up in the streets after air-raids? Added to the foreboding in the later passages are rumours (half-understood by the children) of a “shadow man” and revived nightmares of a Nachzehrer (vampire from dark German folktales). In the following passage, Chidgey is describing quite literally the making of cast heads of Hitler, that members of the Volk were encouraged to display in their homes. But the literal description has a clearly symbolic undertone:

The heads are lighter than they appear, cast in base metal and finished to look like solid bronze. They warm beneath the women’s hands, coming to life, but if you turn them upside down you will find they are hollow; you will see the backwards mouth, the backwards eyes, the dark dome of the skull. The women touch the flow lines and the voids, the linden-leaf blemishes, deciding what they can correct with their brushes and cloths and what cannot be fixed. There might be a hole in the temple, the suggestion of a wound, a congenital fault: such examples are returned to the furnace and melted back down. I have witnessed this process, the malformed faces distending and collapsing, unmaking themselves.” (p.86)

Much of The Wish Child consists of interior monologue of the city girl Sieglinde or of the farm-boy Erich (who is puzzled by unanswered questions about his background.) But I have not mentioned something that gives this novel its particular flavour. On the opening page we are introduced to a disembodied and unidentified narrator, who speaks thus:

Let me say that I was not in the world long enough to understand it well, so can give you only impressions, like the shapes left in rock by long-decayed leaves, or the pencil rubbings of doves and skulls that are but flimsy memories of stone. Just these little smudges, these traces of light and shadow, these breaths in and out. They feel like mine” (p.13)

Who or what is this narrator, who looks on events and comments on characters in a curiously detached way? As always, it is not my purpose to spike the surprises of a newly published novel. But I can say that this voice is connected to the Nazi embrace of eugenics in a way that makes the “wish” of the novel’s title profoundly disturbing. In a scene set in a medal factory, the schoolchildren’s guide expresses propaganda for motherhood, but in a way that is eugenicist and racially-based. She tells the children: “It’s not sufficient, though, simply to produce these children – anyone can do that; look at the gypsies. No, girls, you must be judged worthy of the [motherhood] medal – your conduct as well as your blood – and not only the number but also the quality of the children is considered….” (p.132)

This sort of biological racism comes to dominate the novel’s nightmare and is the novel’s key indictment of the regime. It is underscored when the image of the fossilised Kayhausen Boy is used to teach a eugenics lesson about how the weak do not deserve to survive; or another in which Erich is measured with callipers to show he is a true Aryan. The front-flap blurb of The Wish Child describes the novel as “a profound meditation on the wreckage caused by a corrupt ideology, on the resilience of the human spirit, and on crimes that cannot be undone”. Well, maybe, though this formula makes it sound a little more pat than it really is. I see its relevance to our own age as much in its exposure of a eugenics mentality, which judges people in purely materialistic terms of their utility – meaning that the chronically sick, the deformed or the mentally ill are not wanted, and should be eliminated. Though the term eugenics has long since been abandoned, this mentality is still very much with us.

I am resistant to those who judge the value of literature by how much it emotionally moved them (“Oh it was so MOVING!” somebody may witter of a sentimental film). But I do have to record my reaction to the final meeting of Sieglinde and Erich in shattered Berlin and the way their story works out. It is wrenching, shattering, indeed one of the few times that reading a novel has almost driven me to tears.

Was it an artistic mistake of the author not to end the story in the rubble of Berlin, 1945? I’ll let others judge that one. But by carrying it on to East and West Berlin in the 1950s and 1960s, and the way the Communist Stasi spied and censored the way the Gestapo had, Chidgey does make a major point about the durability of humanity’s dark side.

This is a brilliant novel, with a cohesive and persuasive vision of human beings under stress, a subtle prose-style and a major grasp of things that really matter.


  1. Thank you very much for covering this topic. How does one compare 'The Wish Child' by Ina Seidel to see how Chidgey changed it? Would you know how one can get an original english translation of the original German book? Is it available in certain American library systems?

    1. I have contacted the author who wrote the following, which is the best I can answer you : "I didn't base my book on Seidel's at all. I had already decided on the title (a direct translation of the German expression 'das Wunschkind', meaning a very much desired child) and then I discovered her novel - that's all. It makes a cameo appearance in my book, which is mentioned in the notes at the back. I did interloan an English translation of it and I think that was from a US library. In haste - packing to head overseas!"