Saturday, December 1, 2012

Justice does not banish loss (Books - Berlin Cantata by Jeffrey Lewis)

Berlin, a mecca of culture and progressive thought in the 1920s, cleared of much of its talent by the Nazis,then destroyed like most German cities by the war, then divided as a spoil of war, half-Communist half-Western, then - 1989 - the wall falls. In this city: a house owned by a Jewish family, then Nazis, then Communists.  To that city on the verge of change comes an American woman, the next generation of the Jewish owners of the house.  Germany's efforts to make reparations to those they harmed in the war mean that she might be able to lay claim to the house.  In Berlin Cantata (Haus, 2012), Jeffrey Lewis tells the story of modern Berlin - a city where the layers of history are exposed, where the past walks on two feet, seemingly as alive as the present.  A city of ghosts.  Lewis tells this story of memory, guilt, politics, and family as a melange of solo voices.  The house's former owners, its current residents, the young woman's lawyer, a contemporary journalist speak their monologues as the story accumulates and the mysteries of the past unfold.

It sounds like it could be terribly "experimental" but it's not.  Lewis's ventriloquism is credible in that one can believe that the voice belongs to the character, but it is not so strong that I would have been certain without a chapter heading who is speaking. I appreciated the clarity, though I wanted stronger voicing.  The story unfolds more or less chronologically. Although it refers to the past it, again, carefully guides us through narration. I would have enjoyed a narrative that felt a little more like time, that possessed time's fluidity.  The strength of this book is a vein of emotion that evokes living in the context of loss.  The story does honor to those who were victimized as Jews, homosexuals, and political dissidents were.  It is sympathetic to all the German citizens who suffered after the war, but it is not sentimental or simple-minded.  Its disparate voices quietly circle around a narrative core of seeking justice to repair the wounds of the past.  But in a city like Berlin, ones own justice bumps up against the lives of others and, even given everything that is rightfully yours, justice does not banish the loss.

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