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The Pieces from Berlin
The title of Michael Pye's new novel, The Pieces from Berlin (Knopf, 2003), refers to pieces of furniture displayed in a pricey Zurich antique shop. One of them is recognized as a former possession by Sarah Freeman, formerly Sarah Lindemann, the wife of a Jew who did not survive the Holocaust; Sarah herself, although she could have claimed Aryan status, chose not to, and only got through the war by hiding out in a garden shed for a year. In their last days in Berlin, she had stood by while her husband arranged for a friend, Lucia Müller-Rossi, to take care of his valuables for the duration. Fifty years later, she sees a picture of one of them, a beautiful marquetry table, in a Christies catalogue. Now she knows what kind of a friend Lucia was.
The pretty table was only a tiny part of the haul that Lucia managed to drag across Germany in the last days of the war, through the Allied advance and into Switzerland. There after an aborted brush with the law, she established herself as a respectable dealer. Over the years, she learns to live with the terrible emptiness that her crimes have substituted for her soul, but her son, Nicholas, a retired professor, remains uneasy, suspended in a willed ignorance that his daughter, Helen, determines to end. Even more than a cautionary tale about war crimes, The Pieces from Berlin is about a family divided against itself.
How complicit can a child be? What do children know, and not know, about their parents' activities? What implications can they be expected to follow? And what is the adult child's responsibility for drawing inferences that were beyond his childish imagination? In this kaleidoscopic novel, where the significance of individual scenes and the beauty of the writing occasionally threaten to sink the narrative thread, the pieces are laid out for the reader's consideration with the same attentive care that Lucia Müller-Rossi lavishes on her merchandise. Nicholas's is undoubtedly a special case. His parents - his father a Swiss accountant working in Bavaria, his mother the daughter of a prominent Milanese banker - separated, without divorcing, at the outbreak of World War II, when the father was called up by the Swiss army, and Lucia relocated to Berlin, a city that suited her taste for glamour, erotic adventure, and sheer shiftiness. Getting out at the last minute - a maneuver that is not explained until the very end of the book - Lucia has by middle age become one of the most material girls in literature, but we see her through the adoring eyes of her little boy, who is occasionally left alone during the nightly bombing raids while Lucia goes nightclubbing. Her life is hardly an easy one, but many of its difficulties are self-imposed, brought on by her craving for excitement. Does she love her son? To put it better: would her saying that she loves her son mean anything to you? Such love as she shows Nicholas amounts to a curse. Estranged from his father after a too-youthful encounter in which the son instinctively stuck up for his mother, and rejected by his father's second family, Nicholas withdrew into scholarship. The final problematic element in his situation is the fact that his beloved wife has died before the ordeal of Sarah Freeman's accusations forces him to confront what he remembers of the dual trauma of war and of his mother's evacuation; I suspected that had Nora been alive, Nicholas would have fared better than he does. Without her, he is caught in the crossfire exchanged by his equally implacable mother and daughter.
We see Nicholas, for the most part, at two points in his life, in the present and during the later stages of the War in Berlin. Scenes of the latter are quite harrowing, often for what they leave out.
On August 1, 1943, schools closed. Women, children, and the sick were told to leave the city. Nicholas's friend Gerhard was taken to the station, but it seemed nobody had told the railways about the crisis; so there were no trains.
The next day, a leaflet at the door: all women not doing war work, all children, to leave at once. The day after that: leaflets from the air, telling women and children to go. The temperature had slipped ruthlessly upward - 90º, then 95º - and the heat met the crowds like a wall. They still butted and rushed their way to the railway station.
Lucia was not leaving. Nicholas didn't understand. She knew so many important people, it seemed, so many names that must matter from the way she intoned them, so many diplomats and politicians and people who still had cars they could send to take her to dinner: she must have had a choice. She knew enough to want Nicholas in Switzerland, as soon as possible, But she didn't want to go herself.
She was still the whole world for Nicholas. What other world can you have when the sky goes red and streets start falling?65
What keeps Lucia in Berlin, of course, is her ill-gotten horde of antiques, all of it lifted from Jews forced to move into ever-smaller quarters before their final disappearance. She will not leave Berlin without her treasure. And although there is no doubt that she will eventually carry it off, the escape is almost as harrowing as the fall of Berlin, for we see it, also, through Nicholas's terrified eyes. Why would any healthy person revisit such scenes?
But Helen has never known such uncertainties. A professional who has taken leave in order to raise her little boy, Helen worries about her widowed father but not to the extent of wanting to protect him from Sarah's questions. Her first act of defiance against her grandmother is to shove a sheaf of legal papers in front of Nicholas, transcripts of proceedings brought against Lucia, and then mysteriously dropped, right after the war. They make out the case against her well enough; they put the pieces of Nicholas's memory together for him. Altogether lacking his mother's redoubtable carapace, he cannot sustain the awful shock of knowing the source of his own childhood's wherewithal, and Lucia's adamant refusal to talk to him about it undoes him. Having undone him does not, however, undo Helen. Or Lucia.
There are several other stories in The Pieces from Berlin. The most tangential one happens to be almost as intriguing as Nicholas's, and it might well have stood alone as a short story. Peter Clarke is a retired English horticulturist taking the same tour that brings Sarah to Zurich, and after he strikes up a friendship with her we learn of the dislocation of his return to England from prisoner-of-war camp in 1945. None of this has any bearing on the story of Lucia and Nicholas, but it wades in the same ambiguous waters. Like all of this novel, Peter's is a story that emerges not from a plot line but from extraordinary writing.
He truly loved walking. Each mile was a purpose in itself; he didn't need to imagine anything longer or grander. The camps had tightened him up like a screw, and now he was using his body again, feeling the blood come back to limbs which had a healthy sense of looseness.
And he was still in uniform, with a shirt from Grace so he could change clothes. He didn't need to explain anything, because everyone thought he must be on his way home. People were kind, perhaps a little alarmed. The uniform made him anonymous, too: one man in a million men all walking and driving and riding home.
He was vanishing. His father, he found out later, sat at home more afraid than he ever had been during the war. Then, he trusted a whole official machine to care for his son, but now he did not know if his son was to be trusted. He conjured up memories of trench war, mustard gas, exploded souls, and he wondered if his son had broken.
But his son was on a beach, trying to stay in the warm, salty moment. He thought of his garden, though, brown now with the summer, no rain and no watering. He thought of his father, how he should have let himself be welcomed home. He ran into the cold, gentle chop of the water, he washed himself, and he came out and lay on the shingle in the sun.152
Peter does return home and settle down, but his contentment is limited to the professional; in a Zurich garden, he will show Nicholas some hybrid flowers that he himself bred, but his confessions to Sarah betray a crossed love-life, marked by abandonments for which he is now resolved to atone.
That Lucia, monumentally grand in old age, and monumentally determined to prevail against Sarah's onslaught, should resort to stonewalling comes as no surprise; nor does her putting self-interest before her son's need to discuss what she has resolved to ignore. We are not to doubt Lucia's evil, but it is her very evil that keeps her just out of focus. Can evil be comprehended? No, because it is built on denial and self-deceit; the evil person cannot know himself, and that is the mark of evil. The evil person will do anything to preserve the ironclad compartments that separate him from the meaning of his evil actions and that so make it possible to go on living with unexpiated guilt.
Sarah Freeman is this novel's most complex character, because her decision to move forward on restitution suggests that the possession of a fancy table can somehow right the wrong of the Holocaust, and she is rivetingly aware of this imbalance. She wants justice, but she does not want an eye for an eye; she is not quite sure what she wants from Lucia. When the two finally confront one another at a funeral, there is no resolution, because Lucia insists that she 'had no choice.' Of course she had a choice, counters Sarah; but Lucia will not argue. How could she? She could only capitulate, and capitulation is the one thing that Lucia Müller-Rossi has made it a point to avoid. The funeral goes on, with Sarah on her knees and Lucia seated in the pew.
Another novelist, perhaps, might have resorted to the excitement of a courtroom showdown, and the satisfaction Lucia's public disgrace. (Mr Pye acknowledges that his story was inspired by an the doings of actual criminal.) But this novelist has other interests, incompatible with climax and dénouement. The stories of the individual characters are not fused into one overarching story, but rather they're left loose, pieces that have changed meaning over time just as the furniture in Lucia's shop has changed ownership. While nothing can diminish the horror of the Holocaust (the infinite is fixed), Lucia's dreadful opportunism glints differently according to the light, and to submit it to the judgment of a court would lessen the judgment implicit in Lucia's ultimate, if private, collapse.
The caption beneath the author photograph on the dust jacket identifies Michael Pye as a 'historian, journalist, and broadcaster,' which makes him a poet manqué. Quite aside from the finely-crafted prose, his poetic gift reveals itself in a certain obliqueness, a resistance to explanation that would be the pride and joy of any writers' workshop. I was often uncertain of catching precisely the intended nuances, and at least two little vignettes failed to yield up their sense to me. Put me down as thickheaded. For personalizing the currently contentious issue of reparations and restitution, Michael Pye's novel can't be surpassed. (June 2003)
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