I got a copy of Deutschland, by Martin Wagner, with the compliments of Pinter & Martin publishers in London, after reading Charlie’s review and getting interested. Her review promised interlocking short stories, and and I guess that’s fair enough, but I found the description of the stories as “dark” a bit understated.
This is one of the darkest short novels I’ve ever read. It reminds me a bit of The Wasp Factory, except that instead of seeing the world through the eyes of one twisted character who has a secret, I’m seeing it through the eyes of three—and the suggestion is that there are many more, most ranging somewhere on the scale between indifferent to active participant in the suffering of others.
The oldest character, Richard, participated in the actual Milgram obedience experiment and is married to Suzannah, a concentration camp survivor. Her daughter, Kate, hones her talent for finding the right order to give the current one in her series of boyfriends in order to drive him away. Her granddaughter, Sam, works to stay passive in the face of the invented obedience games her older brother, Tony, inflicts daily on both her and her younger brother, Jeff. None of this cruelty has any real purpose; the characters simply want to see how far they can go.
I found it disheartening at first, and then sickening. We’re introduced to Tony’s first game when the children go to the beach and build a fire, the purpose of which is to test who can hold a hand or an arm over it the longest. “Sam felt her smarting arm. She knew she didn’t really have to do this, but if she won today, Tony would forget about the game. He would probably think of another one, but until he did, they’d have some breathing space.” Her life is a living hell, and all she can hope for is a day to heal from one “game” before another will begin.
Kate’s horror of the country mentioned in the title, Germany, seems out of place to her when she travels there with her boyfriend. “Kate was disappointed to see that everyone was being waved through. No need for passports any more. I wouldn’t have minded a stamp in mine, she thought, but we all live in one country now.” The suggestion is that, as Milton puts it in Paradise Lost, “the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” Kate sees the world as bleak, and goes out to find others who agree:
“’When you English and the Americans came and won the war in ‘forty-five,’ he continued, ‘everyone thought we Germans would change overnight. From murderers and Nazi sympathizers to holy people who would never harm a fly. But why should we change? Just because we see some pictures in the newspapers and hear stories about how evil we were? I don’t know how people can expect others to change that easily.’
‘But it’s not like you’re hiding it,’ Steve said. ‘You are talking about it all the time, trying to remember, so it can’t ever happen again.’
‘But it can happen again, anywhere, any time.’ Kate was almost shouting….’It is happening now.’”
Kate makes it happen.
Richard keeps his secret. Suzannah paints “a portrait of him, not the way he was but maybe the way she remembered him.” The reader, however, knows that, like the portrait of Dorian Gray, this portrait will appear uglier to her after the almost inevitable point when his secret is revealed. Or on the slight chance that it isn’t, the ugliness will still be there, nascent, waiting.
A chilling book, full of ordinary, pedestrian cruelties. If you like to be shaken up, this is just the book for you.