Book Review: The Bureau of Past Management

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“I’d prefer it if people weren’t always looking at things from the outside, trying to explain the crime. Instead, speak of the suffering. I wish people would think about what it is essentially about. Contemplate, rather than commemorate.”

The Bureau of Past Management, by Iris Hanika (translated by Abigail Wender), explores the shadows that national guilt can cast on future generations. It also raises the point that history is monetised as a tourist attraction. All this is told in a tale of two middle aged friends over the course of a few weeks during which their personal lives reach a crossroads. Set in contemporary Berlin, the inheritance of the Nazi era continues to fester.

The story focuses on Hans Frambach, a middle aged bachelor who has long worked as an archivist at the eponymous bureau. Hans is facing something of a crisis, questioning the worth of the work he is now required to undertake. His private life is also largely empty, its highlight the times when his only friend, Graziela, turns to him for advise on the affair she is embroiled in. Hans is happy to offer whatever support she asks for, recognising the value of their friendship.

Hans follows the same habits each day, turning up for work where he tries to act as he believes a normal person would.

“He drew up the corners of his mouth so she would think he was smiling. There would be no other choice. He observed all social conventions, which was why he pulled up the corners – it was customary, that’s how people smiled.”

That he does not consider himself normal adds to the detachment he feels. He ponders the life he is leading, the loneliness he feels knowing he exists with little purpose. He regrets there is no one to ‘hold his hand’.

“In the time he’d found the two records and listened to both songs, a full twenty minutes of his life had been taken from the future and turned into the past.”

When out and about he watches the people around him, his caustic observations bringing to the fore how awkward he feels in company. There is little to suggest he admires anyone else or the lives they lead.

“Another man, young but not handsome, oozed sexual need from every pore. And yet he wore a disparaging look on his face, as though he’d rather torture an animal than have sex, and if a woman did happen to fall into his hands, he’d treat her the same way.”

There are few bright spots in Hans’ days. He looks forward to his regular phone calls with Graziela. When they meet he enjoys her company and conversation. His other pleasure comes when he feels he has bested his co-workers, who he regards with contempt – these small victories are rare and mostly short-lived.

In managing the nation’s past, the bureau is keeping the memories fresh as so many people rely on them for work. Hans can see that this is happening. He tries to discuss his misgivings with Graziela while she shares her own trials with him. Both appear on the cusp of change, something the other encourages, which brings further anxieties.

The irony and wit of Hans’ contemplations sit alongside his loneliness and melancholy. He suffers fearful dreams that are coloured by the Auschwitz archives he is digitising. His suffering is clear, but this is tinged by comparisons to Holocaust victims.

There are occasional chapters that I struggled to fit with the narrative. Perhaps they are internet rabbit holes Hans ventures down during his empty evenings. I do not believe I got from them what the author intended.

In her note at the end of the story, the translator writes that she regards the book’s central question to be ‘how do we understand the past, and what is the purpose of collective, historic guilt?’ While I enjoyed pondering this dimension of the novel, I feel I only garnered what was offered at a superficial level.

An engaging and unusual tale that provides much to consider. Despite being unable to fully grasp every aspect included, the story was well worth reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, V&Q Books.

Book Review: The Lighthouse

“He turns, gazing back at the path of trampled grass along which he has come. Considering retracing his steps, he wonders about all the points along the way at which he might have made a mistake, missed a turning, lost in thought.”

The protagonist of The Lighthouse is a middle aged man named Futh who has recently separated from his wife, Angela. It is set over the course of a week during which he is taking what he hopes will be a restorative walking holiday in Germany. Opening on the ferry in which he travels from his home in England, the reader is quickly appraised of events that have shaped Futh’s life to date. His mother left him and his father when he was a child and he has not heard from her since. His father has always been bad tempered and Futh learned to tread carefully or keep his distance. After his mother left, Futh turned for comfort to a neighbour, Gloria, whose marriage had also broken down. Gloria’s son, Kenny, did not appreciate the attention his mother offered his classmate. The boys had little in common other than proximity and age.

Futh has booked into a different hotel each night along his planned walking route, arranging for his luggage to be transported ahead of him during each day. The first hotel is in the town of Hellhaus, run by a married couple, Ester and Bernard. Ester is a faded beauty who seeks attention through infidelity with guests. She accepts the punishments Bernard metes out for this behaviour.

As Futh travels he recalls the days just prior to his mother’s departure. He remembers the evenings spent with Gloria and his failed friendship with Kenny. Futh had a schoolboy crush on Angela but only later managed to attract her attention. She would grow irritated when he mentioned any aspect of her behaviour that reminded him of his mother. She berated Futh for what she regarded as his failings, wanting him to be more practical, like Kenny.

Futh works for a company that produces the chemical scents added to products to make them smell of the more natural essence they claim to contain – coffee bean scent added to instant coffee or flower scent added to perfume. He is attuned to smells and the memories they evoke, the people he has wanted to matter to. His mother smelled of violets, her clothes of camphor. Baked goods remind him of food she would make – of the time when she paid him attention.

The story winds itself around Futh as he stoically walks from hotel to hotel, the journey not always progressing as planned and anticipated. There are also threads exploring Ester’s background and her behaviour back at Hellhaus, where Futh will spend his final night. The reader knows that a crisis is brewing.

The author writes in taut, understated prose that is impressive in how much it conveys through brief scenes and fragmented memory. There are cracks in Futh’s life through which glimpses are offered of events he suppresses. There is a yearning for something lost that may never have existed.

I am impressed that such depth of plot and character development can be achieved in a novel of less than two hundred pages. This is a fantastic read and one that lingers well beyond the final page.

The Lighthouse is published by Salt.

Book Review: You Would Have Missed Me

You Would Have Missed Me, by Birgit Vanderbeke (translated by Jamie Bulloch), is the latest release in Peirene Press’s ‘There Be Monsters’ series. Based on the author’s childhood, it is told from the point of view of a young girl whose parents have fled East Germany for the West with their daughter just before the building of the Berlin Wall. The adults embrace the materialism of imported American culture, buying goods on credit in an attempt to emulate remembered wealth from their pre-war years. The child considers her parents’ conversations proof that their lives were so much better before she was born, and perceives a correlation.

The story opens on the girl’s seventh birthday. She understands that, once again, she will not be receiving the kitten she has longed for since they left the refugee camp for the assigned two bedroom flat where they now live. Her parents do not listen, believing they know best what is good for her. In her view, since moving to the West, they have done what they can to remove every source of her happiness.

Back in the East her grandmother would care for her while her mother was at work. She remembers: the large house and garden, the fun of visiting uncles, delicious food. Now she subsists on the bland offerings her mother cooks, denied even water when thirsty as her mother believes it will give her worms. Any friends the child makes are derided as beneath her family’s social standing. She is banned from visiting adults whose company she enjoyed at the camp after her mother questions their morals.

The mother is determined that her family will climb the ladder of social success. Her much younger husband struggles to contain his anger at the hand life has dealt him. The girl is frightened of her father and with good cause. She longs for someone wise to talk to, someone such as the fun and friendly doctor who arranges treatment for her injuries.

Children have no choice but to accept the decisions made for them by their parents. Remembering her earlier life, the child does not understand why they became refugees and why adults lie about so much when questions are asked. In viewing life through her eyes the reader is shown how ridiculous many aspects of adult behaviours can be and how futile their often hollow aspirations. Children see through the social blather and observe more than they are given credit for.

The ridiculousness of the mother’s desires add much humour. She hankers after possessions and experiences that, when grasped, will always fall short. Likewise she longs for an ideal daughter, one who is quiet and pretty and does not scuff her shoes or cause damage in the home. The child knows that she is a constant source of disappointment and must find a way to live with the hurt this causes.

“You get used to disappointments, but in the long term they make you feel cold and empty inside, and you begin to lose heart.”

Instead of a kitten the child is given a globe along with presents from people who have shown her kindness in the past. From these gifts she concocts a means to get through the moments of strife she faces at school and at home. Despite her parents’ inability to listen, she finds her voice. It gives her hope that she can navigate her way to a better future.

The nuance and wit in the writing raises this astute tale of childhood hurt to a level both haunting and sanguine. The treatment of children, seen through the eyes of a child, is a reminder that parents are fallible and, too often, selfish in their motives. The refugee element adds a layer of poignancy. Subtle and compact, this is a deftly affecting yet entertaining tale.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: Flotsam

Flotsam, by Meike Ziervogel, tells the story of a mother and her daughter, both of whose lives have been shaped by loneliness and loss. They live in a remote cottage close to mud flats on the German North Sea coast where dykes enable human habitation. The mother, Anna, is an artist processing grief by collecting debris washed up by each tide. Her daughter, Trine, plays on a shipwreck on the shore but is reaching an age when such games must be left behind.

The story opens in the early 1950s with an accident. Trine is climbing down from the broken and stranded ship to reach the body of her brother, Carl. He has just fallen from the rope ladder and she knows that he is dead but is afraid of the fuss her mother will make when she finds out. Trine remembers the wailing and crockery throwing that followed her father’s death and burial. She wishes to give Carl a pirate’s send-off, burning his body to ensure he cannot wake up in a box underground.

Trine has recently befriended two of the popular girls at her school and does not wish to lose this unexpected chance to fit in socially. Unlike them, Trine’s body has yet to form the curves that the boys who hang around with them admire. When one of the boys appears to notice her, Trine determines to outmanoeuvre the competition, whatever that may take.

The second half of the book focuses on Anna. She rescues a drowning man from the waves, taking him home to nurse him better despite the stones she found in his pockets. Anna rarely sees strangers. She has grown used to a life of solitude, endured since she moved to the coast at the outbreak of the war. Anna’s husband, Otto, owned the cottage and moved her there from Berlin to keep her and their young son safe from aerial bombardment. Otto was supportive of Anna’s art but did not offer the passion and excitement she had expected when they married.

As the war progresses, Anna seeks her own adventures. Meanwhile, her son grows, eager to fight for his country alongside the peers who are now regarded as heroes, for the victory they have been taught is assured.

The writing has a dark and haunting quality yet there is much beauty in its concise construction. The story ebbs and flows with the ghosts of the past and the effects of the isolated location. Both Trine and Anna show a resolve that can be unsettling, beguiling – perhaps because young women are not expected to behave as they do.

An astute and arresting tale that brought to mind the disturbance caused on reading Wyl Menmuir’s The ManyThe denouement is poignant yet fitting, an affecting reaction to untold grief.

“She used to wonder what kind of art she might have been able to make if grief hadn’t cornered her, deprived her of images, of thoughts, of language, of visions. And all that she had left to do was to roam the mudflats, collecting flotsam and jetsam. Waiting.”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.