Can you measure and compare grief? Bea, whose parents died in the last days of the war when her mother tried to join her father in the military hospital in Stolp in Hinterpommern, was brought up by her grand parents. At their death, whilst cleaning out the house, she discovers a manuscript which her grandfather had left for her to find. The contents which she then reads has a profound emotional effect on her.
This manuscript was written as part of a psychotherapy by a Frau Hiller who was a survivor of the Russian labour camps in Siberia. Bea’s world is shaken when she learns that her mother did not die in Stolp as she had been told but had been captured by the Russians in 1945 And deported with Frau Hiller to the labour camp in Siberia where nearly all of the deportees died of a combination of illness, malnutrition and starvation, described in detail by Frau Hiller who as a convinced National Socialist and in her total belief, wished that the first l in her name had been a t.
Zeller describes the horror of the siege of Leningrad where Bea’s father had fought and gives some perspective of the revenge motive in the Russian treatment of their German prisoners. Bea is unable to talk about what she has discovered, perhaps the difficult subject of guilt by procuration interfering with her need for mourning and closure.
After an initial short encounter, she meets up, some five years later with Jacob an atheist, who as a Jewish child had survived the war hidden in a hot house. And so begins a difficult relationship between these two emotionally scarred people. Jacob eventually organises a winter trip to Saint Petersburg for them and finally confides in her, telling her his story, painful but socially acceptable. We feel Bea’s need to confide bur also her even greater reserve.
‘As they approach St Petersburg she would like to rest her head against his shoulders. But she sits as one is supposed to sit, quiet and numbed in her upright seat…..the nose of the plane starts to dip. But it is still a long time until the panorama of the city in winter appears on the horizon, a picture-postcard skyline behind a curtain of snow, a scene that Bea’s father, as part of the advanced guard, saw through his binocular periscope. St Petersburg, still called Leningradat that time, of course, was besieged and starved for eight hundred and eighty days. According to Hitler’s vision, the city was to be wiped off the map.
If Bea cannot tell Jacob about her father here, then when will she ever be able to? How will he take it? Will he listen to her or will he interrupt and shame her:’Your father was at the siege of Leningrad? I don’t believe it!’
These two extremely sensitive people, her sensitivity worn on her sleeve and his hidden behind protective layers eventually come close as she, towards the end of the book, on the flight back from St Petersburg, unable to tell him, leaves him the manuscript to read. He makes no comment on the contents but his feelings are illustrated by the following quote:
‘In a voice that sounds strangely choked, Jacob asks whether Bea has fastened her seatbelt properly. She feels his hand at the back of her neck, supporting her head. He is waiting for her tears, so that he can dry them…. He reaches for her wrist….After that he does not let go of her hand.’
Jacob until now was unable to show this level of tenderness towards Bea.
Zeller’s solution is that the two griefs need not compete nor be measured one to the other but may co-exist.
First Published in German as”Das Versiegelte Manuscript” by DVA in 1998
Translated into English by Nadia Lawrence and published as “The Manuscript” by Vintage in 2001