AS HER COUNTRYMAN Taika Waititi has done in his irreverent, affecting film Jojo Rabbit, award-winning New Zealand writer Catherine Chidgey has created a story that puts us inside the lives of children being raised in Nazi Germany. Chidgey’s luminous fourth novel, The Wish Child, was published in New Zealand in 2016, came out in hardback in the United States last year, and was released in paperback in January.
The Wish Child’s Sieglinde and Erich are growing up in ordinary German families as Hitler comes to power. Their stories are told by an omniscient narrator who, like the narrator in Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Virgin Suicides, merges with and inhabits both Siggi and Erich in disarming and telling ways. Chidgey’s narrator, whose identity is hinted at but who remains largely veiled for much of the novel, can see into the unspoken inner lives of these children. He knows what they don’t yet understand, recognizes what they are not yet able to articulate. Chidgey’s inscrutable but all-knowing narrator bears a remarkable likeness to the angels in Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire — unseen and unheard, hovering over everyday Germans as they come to terms with their past and their present. Though they are children and cannot comprehend everything they witness, we have access to layers of Siggi’s and Erich’s experiences via the novel’s narrator who is, we come to understand, emblematic of much that is happening throughout the Reich. As he tells us while he listens in on the book’s characters, “[I]f I could have spoken I suspect they would have heard only static, rain, tumbling blocks, the sound of blank air.”
Of course we understand what is happening and what will happen in Germany during the years of Chidgey’s plot. We watch while evil unfolds bit by excruciating bit in the daily lives of these children and their families. In Chidgey’s masterful telling, we are at once by the side of these characters, feeling with and for them, and standing apart from them, appalled by the seemingly inconsequential, mundane choices they make — and the inertia they exhibit — all of which accretes to make a whole that they cannot, or will not, see.
Erich Kröning is an only child living near Leipzig with his mother and father. His family scratches out an existence on their simple farm. They grow wheat, keep bee hives — “the traditional kind, in the shape of people” — and accord Mein Kampf pride of place on their shelf. Siggi Heilmann lives in an apartment in Berlin with her parents and two brothers. In the Heilmanns’ home, there is family China and good silver, the radio brings daily dispatches of the war into the living room, and “[a]bove the sofa the Führer stares out from his portrait, frowning a little, straining to make sense of himself.” Siggi and Erich watch as the world around them both grows and shrinks. They look to the adults to explain why there is suddenly an abundance of “lost property” sales in Berlin, why there are nightly air raids, why there is a growing list of newly prohibited words, why so many fathers are gone, and why their own recent childhood memories no longer make sense.
Erich’s father leaves to fight in Russia: “[T]hat is all Mama will say, that he is in Russia, which is big enough to hold Germany many times over. Erich thinks she must mean the Soviet Union, but he does not correct her, and Papa’s letters are sent from nowhere and give nothing away.” Erich and his mother are left to manage the farm as Erich’s questions about his father as well as about his own jumbled memories of a mysterious childhood are shunted aside by his mother and aunt.
Siggi spends her days at home as her mother tries to catalog each and every item in their apartment:
Over the following weeks Mutti worked her way through the entire apartment, taking stock of slippers, books, jigsaw puzzles, gramophone records, searching every centimetre of every room as if she had lost something. She counted Jürgen’s soldiers and Sieglinde’s hair-ribbons. She counted the everyday tablecloths and the white damask ones kept for Tante Hannelore’s visits. She counted the green antique coffee cups with their little gold handles that were almost too small to hold. She counted the light bulbs in the lamps, the envelopes in the desk; she counted the scraps of old aprons and shirts torn into dusters. Cakes of soap. Pairs of scissors. Knitting needles. Piano keys. Vases made into hands. Teeth made into brooches. Old razorblades rubbed sharp on the inside of a glass jar. Glass jars. Pins and pens. Stamps and buckets. And when she had finished, she began again, because of course mistakes were possible, she was only human, and besides, things changed, they changed all the time, whether you were watching or not, but especially if you were not.
These compulsively compiled lists of the material objects that make up the Heilmann home begin to take on a desperate feel. Siggi’s mother becomes more and more attached to the physical representations of her life as the world around her cracks and falls apart. Siggi’s father, whose avocation as a silhouette craftsman makes him ideal for his new job of “Senior Retrospective Editor,” goes to work each day for the Reich, tasked with excising forbidden words from books, painstakingly incising pages in order to counteract “the danger of an uncorrected text.” He tells his daughter that he is proud of his work, yet he secretly worries that “the list of prohibited words is growing longer and longer. Soon, he thinks, there will be no language left — only margins.”
This is a story of loss of innocence during a time when the world has gone mad. As the devastation and turpitude of the Nazi era advance, Siggi and Erich watch and listen and try to make sense of what they see and hear. But Chidgey does not hit us over the head with the enormity of her narrative. Rather, this is a quiet, subtle, almost uncanny novel. Telling a story of Nazi families in Hitler’s Germany without romanticizing atrocity, reenacting monstrosity, or sentimentalizing barbarity is a high-wire act, and Chidgey more than keeps her balance. She has given us a gorgeous book that speaks powerfully of things that cannot be said. Chidgey’s prose has a precise, monumental, fairy-tale feel to it, lending the story a sense of strangeness while at the same time making us feel a part of this world. We read the details of everyday horrors and unease in still, unflappable, lovely lines such as, “Girls strewed flowers in front of the advancing soldiers, and when the Führer’s car at last appeared it moved slowly through this instant meadow, its occupant looking to the left and the right as if trying to find a particular address,” and,
We took the clotting blood, my father and I, my son and I, and mixed it with the fat of the animal, and pushed it into the unwound guts of the animal, and this was to us a wonder: a rearrangement of flesh, a restoration. Great meaty ropes we made, the boneless limbs of an uncharted beast.
Chidgey’s is a story that at its heart is about what is true and what is a copy or distortion of the truth. Siggi’s and Erich’s thoughts are alchemically replicated through the novel’s narrator. At home, Siggi’s father creates exquisite renditions in silhouettes (“He examines his latest silhouette — the Dom in Cologne. Is it accurate? True?”) while at work he manipulates words in order to forge altered copies of books. Siggi’s mother reproduces her entire household on paper, constructing verbal copies of all her possessions. Erich’s family crafts bee hives that duplicate real people: “He thinks of his grandfather’s wooden hives, the carved likeness of Luise, Opa Kröning’s first love. We fashion simulacra of those we have lost and keep them as charms against time; we fill them with swarms of memory, clear-winged and sweet.” Erich has hazy recollections of another version of himself as a child; he wonders which of his childhood memories is true and which fabricated. And throughout the novel Siggi and Erich wonder where “the real Führer” is amid all the rumored doubles and copies.
What is true? What is right? And how will we be able to tell? Siggi and Erich are children trying to discern the truth of their world. They witness what they feel to be untruths, and they struggle to understand. After all, a lie is in some ways simply a copy or version of the truth, a slightly askew doubling of an original. Facts become distorted, versions of the truth change depending on who is doing the telling. Siggi, Erich, and the narrator who recounts their story show us how complicity looks from various angles. In its disquieting meditation on fact and fiction, Chidgey has written a beautiful, unsettling narrative that reflects who we are now as much as who we were then.