I’m always pleased to spot a new Philppe Claudel in the offing. I’ve read all his books available in translation from Parfums, a strikingly unusual scent memoir, to the achingly sad novella Monsieur Linh and His Child. All of them share a strong sense of humanity and a beauty of expression as does his new one, German Fantasia, a set of five linked short stories which explore twentieth-century Germany.
Was he guilty? Guilty of having obeyed? Or guilty of not having disobeyed? All he had done was to follow. Did that make him less responsible than the others?
The opening story, Ein Mann, follows a soldier, escaping the concentration camp where he’s been an administrator, as he walks through his devastated country, soaked and hungry, pondering on the extent of his culpability. In Sex und Linden, the scent of lime blossom vividly evokes the night he lost his virginity, dressed in his dead father’s suit, for a man close to the end of his life, and the memories of the beautiful woman who called him Viktor. Irma Grese sees a seventeen-year-old girl in recently reunified Germany, taken on by a care home to look after the mayor’s ancient father, who finds ways of brightening her dull day with the cook, resenting the old man who sings a Nazi song every day. Gnadentod reimagines a life for the avant-garde artist Franz Marc as a psychiatric patient murdered by the Nazis having given a collection of his work to the institution’s caretaker, Viktor. In Die Kleine, a young girl who escaped a firing squad, clings to the fading memories of her family after being taken in by a woman who has suffered her own losses.
Her mother laughed too, and the little girl kept her mother’s laugh like a piece of bread in a knotted handkerchief, one that holds treasure for those that are famished
In the note which follows his stories, Claudel describes Germany as the close neighbour who ‘has always been a mirror in which I see myself not as I am, but as I could have been’. Inevitably, given that all five stories are set in twentieth-century Germany, the war predominates and with it themes of nationhood, guilt and culpability, memory and its unreliability. Written in Claudel’s characteristically spare, short sentences, these are richly evocative stories often quietly vivid in their imagery. The extended metaphor of the knotted handkerchief in which the little girl keeps her family memories is extraordinarily effective in the poignant final piece which neatly brings the collection full circle. The only story which didn’t quite work for me was ‘Gnadentod’ with its speculative reimagining of Franz Marc’s life. A thoughtful, often lyrically beautiful collection which will stay with me for some time.
MacLehose Press: London 9781529417883 154 pages Paperback