Philippe Grimbert ‘A Secret’

–Only child, I’d had a brother for a long time. They had to take me at my word when I told this tale to my relations on holiday, to my passing friends.IMG_1136 I had a brother. More handsome, stronger. An older brother, glorious, invisible.***

Fifteen years after his parents suicide, Philippe Grimbert brings us this story of his and his families life told mostly by his young self from the fifties. This family drama was turned into a successful film in France and the book translated into many languages.
Philippe tells us how he grew up in the Paris area with his mother and father, he had health problems and was a weak child so he invented an older brother to give himself courage. His parents were both good looking and athletic and Philippe liked to imagine their youth and how they met.
Philippe, however, was brought up in a family with a secret of which only he was unaware:

–My friend opened one by one new chapters, the events for which I had learnt the details in my history books, the occupation, Vichy, the fate of the Jews, the demarcation line were no longer reduced to bold titles in a school manual, they were suddenly alive, black and white photos that had found their colour. My parents had been through it and were much more marked by this than I had believed. Anna appeared out of the night, Maxime’s first wife.***

The story concerns two major events that in Philippe families case overlapped and interfered. Firstly Philippe’s father Maxime fell passionately in love with his own sister in law Tania, a family drama waiting to burst to the surface and secondly Philippes family was Jewish and Maxime had decided to lead them cross the demarcation line in small groups to flee from their fate and whilst Maxime and Tania arriving separately had reached safety, Anna disillusioned is captured with Simon, Maxime and Anna’s child:

–Try to imagine the feelings of my mother in the light of the news. The enemy from from which she had fled had become an ally brushing aside the only obstacle that stood between her and my father, if Anna and Simon didn’t make it, everything would be possible.***

Could anyone live with the weight of having survived in these circumstances?

First Published in French as “Un Secret” in 2004 by Grasset et Fasquelle
Translated into English by Polly McLean and published by Portobello Books in 2007
*** My Translation

Hertha Muller ‘The Appointment’

-It was just after I had separated from my first husband; white linen suits were being packed up for Italy. After we went on a ten-day business trip together, Nelu expected to keep on sleeping with me. But I’d made up my mind to marry a Westerner, and I slipped the same note into ten back pockets: Marry me, ti aspetto, signed with my name and address. imageThe first Italian who replied would be accepted.
-At the meeting, which I was not allowed to attend, my notes were judged to be prostitution in the workplace….
-The man in charge of ideological affairs personally delivered two written reprimands to my office. I had to sign the original for the records, the copy remained on my desk. I’ll frame it, I said. Nelu didn’t see what there was to joke about. He sat on his chair, sharpening a pencil.

In this book from my 2016 German literature targets and read for the German lit month VI, the Nobel prize winning Herta Müller gives us in this starkly realistic account of life in communist Romania an appreciation of the hopelessness of the period, where the state controls every aspect of your life.  On her way through Bucharest by tram to her appointment at 10h with the state interrogator the unnamed female narrator gives us an insite into her life. The opening quotes tell us of her original fault, putting the notes inside of suits bound for Italy, this is then compounded by the jealous Nelu who fakes her writing and puts notes into suits bound for Sweden and France which of course are found and lead to the series of state interrogations of which today’s appointment is one, but of course there is no way out:

-To clarify the facts of the case, I was supposed to write down every Italian I knew. I was sick and tired of the facts of the case, it was almost evening, I didn’t know any Italians and said so, in vain. He charged about and yelled: You’re lying…..
-And yet he acted as if he knew everything. A man like him must have realized I wasn’t lying…..
-Then he ran his hand into my hair above the temple, twisted my hair around his index finger, and yanked me, as if by a tassel, around the office, over to the window, and back to the chair. And when I was sitting down facing the paper, I wrote: Marcello. I was biting my lips, I couldn’t think of any other name apart from Mastroianni and Mussolini, and those were names he knew as well.

Müller at the same time describes the chaotic nature of life around the narrator, from her partner, Paul, who as all men in Romania, it would seem, has a state sponsored drinking problem with the Two Plums, (plumb schnapps) and who’s life is impacted by the narrator’s problems with the state interrogator, Albu:

-The last time I was summoned, Albu smiled a little as he was kissing my hand: You and your husband drive down to the river quite often, don’t you, and accidents do happen on the roads.

And then some time later true to form:

-As Paul was riding back from the shop, a gray truck had pulled up behind him, it never left his rearview mirror. Paul pulled over to let it pass. There wasn’t much traffic. He was driving quite slowly, the truck pulled up close to him, so close on the roundabout that it seemed the driver wanted to ram right into the Java. Then the motorbike flew up, and Paul went hurtling through the air, without his bike, and then came falling down like deadwood from a tree…..

This chaotic, even random life is further illustrated by her friend Lilli who in trying to get away from her current life, strikes up a friendship with an older miliatary man at the end of his career,  and first uses this as a way to explain the particular role of the miliatary in this Soviet satellite country:

-It had been a long time since the last war. Idleness threatened to erode military discipline, which had to be shored up with so-called precision work, namely, the conquest of beautiful women…….The old officer had thoroughly educated Lilli about the best tactics for combating idleness in peacetime. He too had been on constant maneuvers, Lilli said, until his wife died.

She then tells us that Lilli and her miliatary man meticulously plan their escape to the west but are betrayed by the man supposed to meet them on the western side of the border, who does not turn up  and where Lilli is first shot dead and then ravaged by the border dogs whilst he, in civilian clothes, is taken prisoner.

There is a dark satire in her descriptions, take for example Paul’s mother, a country woman who has the habit of saying what she thinks, which as we now know has not proven to be a very successful strategy in a communist dictatorship :

-Paul’s mother said: In this country you can be as smart as a whip but without a red book all you can do is stand on your beak and fart in the dust like a partridge. She was a village girl who’d left her turnips for a life in the city. She moved into heavy industry, where there were five times as many men as women. With the lower half of her body she joined the Party, learning the ABC’s of communism lying on her back in various beds.

The hopelessness of the situation felt by the woman protagonist and so well transmitted in this book after so many years of this régime can be summed up in my final quote:

-There are people who distinguish not only between objects and thoughts, but also between thoughts and feelings. I wonder how.

An all together grim story of a time gone by in a world that no longer exists (at least no longer in Romania).

First Published in German as “Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet” by Rowohlt Verlag in 1997
Translated into English by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm as ‘The Appointment ‘ and first published in the USA by Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company in 2001, my edition published in the U.K. By Portobello books in 2010