Sunday, October 26, 2008

Anonyma - my thoughts on the book

I mentioned to my book group a while ago that I wanted to read Anonyma, Eine Frau in Berlin (in English, A Woman in Berlin I believe). I guess it was only available in hardback in English; anyway, they didn't go for it but I did. And I've been wanting to write about it for a while.

The book is amazing. It's the journal of a 30-year-old German woman who had been traveling around Europe but ended up settling in Berlin in late 1944 or early 1945 to work at a publisher's. The journal starts as she is staying in the apartment of an acquaintance who has fled Berlin; the building where her own old apartment was had been bombed and destroyed, and in this new building she is now part of the Kellergemeinschaft, the community of the basement - where they go whenever bombs start to fall.

She writes the journal in a notebook some of the time but also on scraps of paper when she can, in between bombings and runs to get food and, later, rapes and negotiations and trips to connect across the city.

What I had heard about the book seemed to concentrate on the rapes. It isn't all there is in the book, after I finished the book I even thought it wasn't really the main thing in the book, but now that it's been a while and I'm thinking back, it's really what colors and affects everything. 

Essentially, in the basement community where they huddle to wait out bombs, there are mostly women, because so many men have either fled Berlin or else have gone to war. The women know that the Russians are arriving, and they are quite sure they will be raped. They also know that their own brothers were raping Russian women in Russia. 

Anonyma, the woman telling the story (do you still call her a narrator when it isn't nonfiction? the journaler / journalist . . .? not sure what to call her) is truly amazing, I think. She's steeped in a sense of German-ness, she's completely convinced that the Russians are an inferior and boorish and uncultured people (this is both before they arrive and after they have come and occupied the city), and yet she doesn't finally seem to judge or condemn the Russian soldiers - neither her own rapists, nor the others. In fact, she talks to them, hangs out with them, has pity for some of them, empathy, you name it.

A number of things struck me forcefully about this book. They interconnect but let me try to untangle them and say what they are:

One of the strongest is what I have just said: that Anonyma, our journaler, is so amazingly unjudgmental. She not only doesn't seem to morally condemn the rapists (even while she has, culturally, completely pre-judged them) but she also seems to be, finally, not seriously traumatized by the rapes. Now, I'm really unsure about this, and it might be the literalist in me reading her book, where she kind of glides over a lot of things and reports them obliquely so that I am only realizing pages and pages later what happened earlier, because she didn't spell it out.

But in fact, she does something that took me by surprise as I read about it. Although she socializes with the Russian soldiers and officers (eating, drinking, singing, talking), and really has genuine human contact and interactions with them, she decides that, while after the first instane or two she is not going to physically fight the rapes (in fact, she goes and chooses somebody to be her regular bed partner so that he, or the fact of him, will keep others away), she is in no way going to be physically affected or sexually engaged. So she turns herself into a cold stone.

This means that the whole thing is, physically, horribly painful. Day after day. She's actually in horrible pain. But I guess this choice is how she manages the psychic pain - because she keeps her own self intact and uninvolved in the sexual contact which, after all, she really has no choice about, she keeps her integrity.

I can see I'm being unsuccessful in disentangling the things that struck me. Another one is this: Anonyma, and a lot of the women who surround her, know they are going to be raped, then know about each other that they are being and have been raped, and talk about it, even joke about it, are vulgar about it. They go on with things. This is happening to them, they cannot help it, but they know that it happens (and they knew it would), and there are other things in life as well (friendships, old connections that can be rediscovered by long treks across the ruined city after it seems things have become calmer, skills to use, plans for how to find food, how to manage extreme hunger, how to plan for life after the war, how to plan new businesses . . .  )

And yet there are ways and places in which this relative sanguinity about the rapes breaks down:

- first of all, there are entire families who shoot themselves rather than letting the young daughters in the family be raped (or after the young daughters have been raped)

- then, there are the men who return from the war, who have a very different reaction. Anonyma was keeping this journal originally as an ongoing letter to her old boyfriend/lover/partner. When he finally actually does make it to Berlin and finds her, they have a day or two of togetherness but it seems as though her journals, and the things she says there, and more than that the matter-of-factness and the vulgarity and the jokeyness with which she and the other women around her talk about the rapes, are what finally drives him away again. 

I find it so interesting that Anonyma herself draws a very definite line between what it's like for her to deal with being raped, and what it would be like for a young woman who has never had sexual experiences before. I guess it makes sense but it wasn't immediately obvious to me. She talks about fumbling, bumbling high school experiences, a clumsy awkward kiss somewhere with a teenage boy, and how those memories are something she can look back on (along with her later adult sexual experiences, but she doesn't mention that as much), but that a girl who's never had anything of the sort would, according to her, be so much worse off because she doesn't have her own sense of sexual feelings on her own terms to place against what is happening to her forcibly now.

There is also a sense, not really expressed, but there, that because Anonyma seemingly has no family left there is nobody left to worry about honor and shame and categories of that sort. If she can put this experience in a box and move on, then there is no-one else who is going to look at it as something else (except, of course, the boyfriend who returns from the war and then can't stand it - can't stand to know what she has gone through - and leaves again). 

But finally, what really surprised me in this book was Anonyma's clear sense, as I mentioned before, of German cultural superiority. She is really truly confident about this. And this is a woman who is generally broad-minded - who, as I said, is apparently so broad-minded that she truly has empathy for the Russian soldiers who are raping her and all the women around her, and she truly equates their actions with those of the German soldiers who had been in Russia (and the equation is made explicit by one of the Russian soldiers who had had to watch awful things being done to his sister). 

She says things like "Jetzt sind wir kein Volk mehr, wir sind nur noch Bevölkerung, sind wohl noch vorhanden, stellen aber nichts mehr dar." Roughly, "Now we're not a people anymore, we're just a population, we're still here, but we don't represent anything anymore." Represent anything!? What does that even mean? I guess in my world I have no concept of the people of a country representing anything to begin with, but for her this is basic. Later she says, about German soldiers returning defeated from the Russian front (I guess), "Die Männer waren unrasiert und abgezehrt, hatten einen elenden Hundeblick. Mir war, als sähen sie gar nicht deutsch aus." So, "The men were unshaven and haggard (I had to look that one up), they had a miserable hangdog look. It seemed to me as though they didn't even look German anymore." There it is again: it's not about whether they're human or not, they are definitely still human (she then says they look like the Russian prisoners she used to see), but they have come down a serious step because they don't look *German*.

There are more things like this. Later on, she writes, about the Russians, that "Thievishness is deep in them." and talks about how when she herself was traveling in Russia, people stole happily and all the time. And she talks about how amazing it must have been for the Russian soldiers to see in what self-assured "culture" the Germans had lived. I was just so struck by her sense of herself and her nationality, because I had already otherwise before been struck with this woman's unbelievable equanimity and seeming generosity of spirit, her evenhandedness.

I have to say, after I finished the book I was walking around Berlin wondering whether this is how Germans, or many of them, still think. I do know, and have known for a long time, that as an American so much of what I say, do, eat, wear, etcetera seems barbaric to Germans. But the way this woman put it seems to have brought home to me much more strongly the sense of people having been brought up to know: we do things a certain way. We are civilized, we are cultured, there is one right way to do most things and we do it that way, and boy do we feel sorry for all the rest of the world! (And boy, must they all wish they were us.)

Now, things may have changed completely since 1945 and of course in so many ways they have. But what she expresses about her own thoughts matches well enough with what I've heard people say that I can imagine they still think in similar ways.

Anyway, I thought this book was amazing. It was amazingly well written under duress (hubby is reading it now and finding it difficult to believe it could really have been written so well under those conditions), it uncovers all kinds of questions and ideas about how people act and react under extreme conditions, and to me it really was thought-provoking about how men and women differ in their reactions to rape (and maybe that can be generalizable to how people react to violence depending on whether it happened to them or to someone close to them but not themselves). 

Hope you have a chance to read this book too. Tell me what you think. 

relationship between men and women
different responses by different families (honor etc.; virgins etc.)
German arrogance


Kimitchka said...

On German feelings of superiority: I think it depends on which group of Germans you are talking about. Germans who did their Abitur and went to University during the 60s and 70s exhibit a strong and refreshing anti-nationalism in comparison to the US flag hoisting which often occurs in America let alone the little flags that so many have started to wear on their lapels during the past eight years. Many Americans may not necessarily feel they are superior as individuals but are completely convinced their system is the top-of-the-line, the most democratic etc. consequently making them the better people, a monopoly on morals if you want. If anyone feels intellectually superior, it would have to be the French, but that’s another kettle of fish. Many Germans clearly lack the ability to interact in groups, I’m not sure why, but it’s something I’ve experienced in the past 30 years. They are clumsy, stiff, a little gawky which sometimes gives you the impression they are haughty. This is much less true of the younger generation, perhaps because they’ve grown up in more prosperous times and have fewer worries? Just some personal observations, not much empirical evidence, I feel there’s a danger of stereotyping here.

elena said...

Thank you for your account of the book; it sounds very interesting, not least for the tension around judging, stereotyping, drawing conclusions on the basis of personal experience, and so on. I think that it's very hard to escape the effects of "representing" the place to which you are linked, so this is always an issue: are you at odds with the prevailing cultural stereotypes (which are based on some measure of evidence and observation, however skewed by those other ways of doing things preferred by the observer) or are you falling in line with cultural norms and expectations? I thought about this a lot in Europe, where cultural differences (amplified by language differences) are so much in obvious proximity with each other, but I think it holds true in the US, too, in those "red' and "blue" states, with their defining characteristics. That's why we need novels and memoirs: to penetrate (sorry for this word, in the context) the mind/psyche of particular individuals wrestling with identity, identification, and those contradictions.

hoping for better things said...

Dear Kimitchka, dear Elena, I'm so glad to have your responses.

(I should say that the 4 lines at the end of my post, which I'm noticing now, were intended originally as notes to me of things I wanted to figure out how to address; they weren't supposed to still end up in the post!)

Kimi, I think it's also interesting to hear how you see the States after 30 years in Germany. And I think I see your point about American moral feelings. And I can also see the stereotyping danger, but really, I was trying to come to grips with this amazing woman who wrote this book, who clearly was exceptional and an individual thinker in so many ways, and tried to be clear-thinking and straight-talking at all times, and to see what seemed to me her biases and assumptions so easily aired was so interesting, and took me aback. And also trying to come to grips with what it is that people on the street and in more intimate contexts, in Germany, are seeing when they see me, are hearing when they hear me.

Elena, I LOVE your concept of "representing" the place, with the constant choice of being at odds or falling in line.

Sorry, I feel this is not quite doing justice to both your thoughtful posts, but thank you both so much!