Sylvie Germain is probably best known for French magical realism, even if this book doesn’t strictly belong to this genre. I remember Litlove reviewed one of her early novels some time ago. I’d never read her before, despite the huge success she gets for every publication. This one got several prizes in France… yet I wasn’t completely convinced.
This is the story of a man who looks all his life for an identity. He starts as Franz-Georg, a five-years old somewhere in Germany in the late 1930s. As a child, he doesn’t really understand his parents, but he loves them, especially his somewhat distant father, an important doctor, who sings him German lieder at night. Yet from the beginning he feels that something is missing: a fever has erased every memory of his early days and all he has is a pitiful teddy bear called Magnus. Suddenly, his life changes as the family flees and goes into hiding at the end of the war. His father disappears. Seen from a young child, it all doesn’t make sense but he learns to live under a new name, Adam, in another part of Germany. Growing up in defeated Germany, orphaned, he slowly understand his parents’ engagement in the Nazi system. With the help of a relative in England, he starts anew under the name of Magnus.
I won’t tell much more of the narrative, but this story twists and turns every time the hero starts afresh with a new identity in another part of the world. This disjointed effect is underlined by the writing structure itself, where every very short chapter alternates with poems, excerpts from other people’s books to give you some grounding or reflection, short timelines for real people’s biographies. Some might find it annoying, but I didn’t. I learnt about the (few) German Lutherans who opposed Nazism and read beautiful excerpts by poet Paul Celan.
[spoilers ahead] What actually did annoy me is that I didn’t see the point of this whole quest for identity. I’m not an adept of saying that your whole identity is shaped by your very first years. Over-freudism is too simplistic, in my opinion. Some of it, but not all. I would have preferred to see Magnus deal with his Nazi parents rather than conveniently discovering that they aren’t his real parents. The fact that he was lied to obviously left him a trauma, and his real mother’s death must have been traumatic too, but somehow, well, I didn’t believe the story I was told.
After reading Gunther Grass’ memoir Peeling the Onion, I can’t believe that Magnus’ flight across Germany during the last days of the war wasn’t more traumatic than anything else he lived through before. I can’t help but think that these events must have shaped a young boy entering adolescence… yet nothing is said about it and facts are more or less glazed over. And the more twists and turns, the less I could relate to Magnus. Of course, there are the conventions of magical realism in there, so we’re not supposed to care about how the young man makes a living, but after a while, I was just fed up with his self-pity and wondered: when does he start living instead of rehashing the past?
On these topics, I’d much rather re-read W.G. Sebald’s History of Destruction on the massive bombings on Germany and the deep silence in which all this trauma has been buried, or Nancy Huston’s Fault Lines on the deep impact of secrets (especially around WWII) transmitted or concealed from one generation to the next.
PS. I didn’t mean to thrash the book. It’s not so bad and I think I’ll try another Sylvie Germain’s soon. A recent family bereavement made me… well, not prone to conciliation. Sorry Ms. Germain, your book just arrived at a bad time.