The Holocaust novel is a relatively recent phenomenon. For decades, fiction maintained a respectful silence, deferring to the testimony of survivors. Even those survivors tended towards circumspection, with Primo Levi warning that such memoirs as his own should be read “with a critical eye”; that the Holocaust could not be wholly apprehended even by those who had endured it.
The present generation of novelists has proved less reticent and, in many cases, less punctilious. If bestselling fiction can, God help us, “raise awareness”, it can just as easily numb the senses. In a spate of popular titles, Auschwitz has been made the site of cosily redemptive parables, the historical frame cropped to Instagram dimensions.
Shortlisted for the Dublin literary award and longlisted for the Women’s prize, Catherine Chidgey’s novel is attended by higher expectations. It is certainly a work of serious intent, distinguished not just by its scrupulous scholarship but by its carefully calibrated ambitions. Chidgey is a writer of formidable resources, a deft stylist possessed of uncanny imaginative acuity, but here she seems determined to keep those gifts in check, or to exercise them only within carefully circumscribed limits.
These self-imposed strictures extend to the novel’s very form. The narratives of its three principal characters each adopt an archival guise: Lenard Weber, a Munich physician, writes letters to his daughter; SS officer Dietrich Hahn gives taped interviews; Greta Hahn, his wife, speaks to us through what is termed an “imaginary diary”, as if to advertise where greater artistic liberties may be taken.
More fundamentally, these narratives are constrained almost from the outset in their possible outcomes. In part, this is a function of historical irony. When Greta’s diary entries begin, in February 1943, her household is decamping to a villa at Buchenwald, where Dietrich is proudly taking up a post. Assuaging her anxieties about the move, he assures her that they will be provided with every comfort, including “excellent servants”. We know, of course, how these comforts and servants will be supplied. We know, too, how Hahn’s illustrious career will end: his transcribed interviews begin in October 1954, meaning that he has been tried by the Americans and escaped execution.
Weber’s story is similarly preordained. In 1942, he is employed at Munich’s Holy Spirit Hospital, treating cancer patients with an electrical device of his own invention – it is this device, based on the principle of “remote sympathy”, that provides the novel’s many layered title. Already, though, his superiors are quizzing him on his ancestry and urging him to divorce his Jewish wife. Again, his fate is doubly assured, since these recollections appear in a letter from 1946: he is bound for the camp but will be spared its crematorium.
Clearly, these choices are considered. By depriving herself of conventional sources of tension, Chidgey can keep faith with her subject. The horrors of the Holocaust were inescapable and must remain so. To imbue them with tricksy suspense would be false, even indecent. But no novel can dispense with artifice entirely, and from the start we see other tensions at work: between proximity and distance, seeing and believing, knowing and refusing to know.
In his interviews, Dietrich insists that he was “merely in supplies”. He boasts that his careful budgeting allowed every prisoner to receive “precisely the amount of food required”. He could tell, he explains, from a chart in the camp kitchens showing “little red tabs that indicated every ten deaths”.
Installed at the villa, Greta evinces shock on discovering that her domestic servant is a prisoner, but soon she is ordering luxurious new drapes from the camp. When the prisoners deliver them, one of them catches sight of his own reflection: “[He] stopped dead for a moment, his mouth an open hole.” The image, like so many here, is lucid but not lurid. It stops us dead, too.
When Greta is diagnosed with cancer, the three characters are brought into conjunction. Hearing of Weber’s “miracle machine”, Dietrich offers him inducements to treat Greta: news of his wife and child; lighter duties that might keep him alive. As their lives and fates intersect, so too do their lies and self-deceits. Dietrich must conceal their arrangement; Greta must feign ignorance of her new doctor’s circumstances; Weber must offer hope for her survival, now inextricable from his own.
Chidgey manages this contrivance with great care, both for its historical fidelity and the nature of its effects. Indeed, the same can be said for the book as a whole. Its aim is not to elicit sentiment, but to enlist witnesses. And as witnesses, we find ourselves unreliable, noticing the unsteadiness of our own gaze and the lapses of our own remote sympathy.