Paula by Sandra Hoffmann (transl. Katy Derbyshire): The power of silence

Sandra Hoffmann’s Paula is one of the launch titles for V&Q Books who specialise in translated German fiction. In her translator’s note Katy Derbyshire explains that so impressed was she with Hoffmann’s book that, unable to find a British publisher for her translation, she decided to approach a German press with a view to setting up an English language imprint. In this powerful slice of autofiction, Hoffmann explores her relationship with her grandmother, both loved and hated, whose presence was such a formative influence on her own life

I count 419 photos in my grandmother’s boxes and albums. As though the sheer number of mute pictures might belie the lack of stories told about them

Hoffmann sets about reconstructing Paula’s life eighteen years after she died in 1997 taking her story with her. She grew up with Paula, a brooding and increasingly intrusive presence, taken in by Hoffmann’s family when her alcoholism became evident. Her grandmother was a pious woman, born in the conservative, Catholic, Swabian countryside in 1915, who gave birth to Hoffmann’s mother in 1946, becoming the subject of endless rumour and speculation in her village. Throughout her life, Paula kept quiet about so much, from the fiancé who may have died in the war to the identity of her daughter’s father, a constant source of tension with her daughter and, by extension, Hoffman who Paula seemed intent on protecting from her own fate. Dredging her childhood memories and trawling through family photographs, Hoffmann assembles a collage of images – some bright and clear, others fuzzy – in an effort to penetrate the silence enveloping her family’s history.

Or perhaps it was not like that at all

Hoffmann’s book straddles a blurred line between fiction and memoir as she attempts to illuminate the story which has thrown such a long shadow over both her life and her mother’s. It’s not an uncommon one but Hoffmann tells it vividly, never letting her readers forget that this is an interpretive reconstruction rather than a retelling of a well-rehearsed family history bolstered with facts. Her grandmother’s iron-willed piety together with the corrosive effects of her silence are potent forces in Hoffmann’s childhood, offset with happier memories of watching Paula’s beloved Bonanza on TV. Once puberty hit, Paula’s fears for her granddaughter dominated their relationship, poisoning whatever closeness there had been between them. For Hoffmann, writing is a way of filling the yawning gaps in her history with imagined episodes, a means of eventually summoning compassion for the woman whose presence she’d grown to detest and an act of catharsis. Let’s hope, it helped ease the pain so evident in this slim, eloquent book.

V&Q Books: Berlin 2020 9783863912581 143 pages

16 thoughts on “Paula by Sandra Hoffmann (transl. Katy Derbyshire): The power of silence”

    1. Fingers crossed we’ll be in a better world by then, Liz. Yes, this one’s both fascinating and poignant. I hope it helped Hoffmann to write it. It felt as if she was desperately trying to make sense of Paula’s past and its effects on her family.

  1. It’s a fascinating read, isn’t it? I did love the way she explored her past, and it’s often painful to share the experiences of both grandmother and granddaughter. But definitely a worthy opener to the new imprint.

    1. Such a creative response to all that pain. I think V&Q have got off to a great start. I’ll be reviewing another of their launch titles, Daughters, next week. Also impressive but in a very different way.

  2. Yours is the third review I’ve seen for this book, all very positive. It’s great to see a new publisher getting off to such a strong start with one of their ‘flagship’ books!

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