Victoria University Press, RRP $NZ35.00, Historical Fiction/Literary Fiction
Catherine Chidgey returns to Germany for Remote Sympathy, the same setting as her Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize-winning novel The Wish Child. Though we’re not in Berlin this time: this novel is set in Buchenwald, a labour camp near Weimar. This remarkable and moving novel features a doctor with a failed hope of saving cancer patients with his Sympathetic Vitaliser machine; a young mother with ovarian cancer; and her husband, the administrative director of the labour camp. Together, these stories form an unusual and compelling triangle of hope, despair, fear and courage set against the horror and anguish of the Holocaust.
I sometimes wonder whether art created from the history of World War II can give us a glimpse of the reality, or if they only move us towards a mythologised version of events. Remote Sympathy seems to acknowledge this worry (doesn’t the title itself refer to its place in being able to create sympathy only from afar?) by giving us the narrative as imagined records of history. The narrative is broken into four: letters from Doktor Lenard Weber to his daughter, Lotte; the imaginary diary of Frau Greta Hahn; the transcribed post-war interviews with Sturmbannfuhrer Dietrich Hahn; and, finally, the ‘personal reflections’ of the inhabitants of Weimar.
Each character of the novel reveals and conceals themselves in their account of the war. Greta and Dietrich offer parallel versions of leaving Munich and moving to Buchenwald, where Dietrich undertakes a new position at the camp. It can be hard to believe Greta would have been so naive and as ignorant of the nature of the camp as she was portrayed, but this is the point: all our minds are exceptionally clever at deception, we are all of us working to maintain the beliefs we hold, even in the face of extraordinary evidence to the contrary. When Greta falls ill, Dietrich panics, and while thousands die around him, he goes out of his way to secure a miracle – using all his contacts and power to have Doktor Lenard Weber sent to Buchenwald so he can use his Sympathetic Vitaliser to cure Greta.
Dietrich’s narrative offers yet another example of the blinkered mind. His slippery, unreliable interview details the camp in juxtaposition to Lenard’s letters. He’s forceful in his insistence that he did everything to keep the record straight, and when he admits to stealing the gold taken from cremated prisoners, we see an evasive mind unable to comprehend its hypocrisy. He describes the actions of the SS toward prisoners who were dead on arrival at the camp as verification of their goodwill – ‘We did our best with them; even those dead on arrival received their own number.’ Dietrich’s faith in Germany, in the Party, and the Aryan superiority, could easily make him a stereotypical Nazi we’ve seen before, and the introduction of Doktor Weber into the Hahn family villa pulls the story away from cliche and into its own.
In his letters, Doktor Weber doesn’t flinch at recalling both his successes and his failures. He divorced his Jewish wife, leaving his young daughter with her mother, in the hope that doing so might save them both, only to place their destiny to forces outside of his control. He used his Sympathetic Vitaliser (a machine that sent electrical currents through the body, in the hope that the patient will be cured through ‘remote sympathy’) on Greta, aware that he couldn’t help her – and he hid his medical skills when he was in the camp. He didn’t look at medical x-rays of his patients, ‘not because they showed how quickly death can grow inside a person, how little control we have, but because they showed the failure of my grand idea.’ His vanity and selfishness, alongside his generosity of spirit, made him a wonderfully human character.
With their flaws and virtues, the characters in Remote Sympathy showcased the darkness inherent in human nature and the eternal battle of how to recognise evil. When Lenard shows his machine to his supervisor at the Holy Trinity Hospital in Frankfurt before the war, the older doctor says, ‘Sympathy? That’s a few hundred years out of date, at least.’ Chidgey’s novel suggests that sympathy is never out of date, not ever out of fashion, and our ability to care for people unlike ourselves is something to cherish and nourish, lest division forces us apart.
The ‘found’ narratives – the letters, diary, and interview – seemed obvious devices to launch into the story but they don’t detract from the novel: Remote Sympathy is spell-binding, a beautiful and sorrowful elegy to a time in our recent history that still has much to teach us in our modern world. Remote Sympathy lets the reader fully into the interior world of another. They also work toward the theory of how truth can be revealed and also concealed: like the photographs Lenard processes in the labour camp of the atrocities of war, exposing the composed images, the letters, diary and interview capture their story and expose it. One character posits that ‘if there was no evidence of that moment, then who was to say it ever happened?’ The precarious nature of history relies upon our belief in the stories we tell, to ourselves and others. The fourth narrative, the ghostly ‘we’ of the Weimar residents, lends a fairy-tale-like voice to the novel. It felt like an incantation, a chant of warning.
Chidgey’s attention to language and her craft has resulted in a magnificent book full of passages of sublime description and hidden allusion: ‘She breathed in and out, in and out, her eyes fixed on the garden just beyond the open French doors. It was in full bloom: little patches of cornflowers and clusters of purple pansies, and the apple-scented climbing roses trained over a wire archway that led nowhere in particular. And the geraniums: abundant splatters of pink and red, brighter and more profuse than any we’d grown in our Munich windowboxes, glowing in the last of the light.’
I could quote from this novel all day to explain its wonders, but you should read it instead. The words entered my mind, the rhythm and the spark of them sending reverberations through my body: these feelings perhaps only a remote sympathy, but sympathy nonetheless, for the characters, their hope, and their suffering.