Sunday, April 13, 2014

Yellow Birds and an Orange Crescent Moon

Last Trolley From Beethovenstraat by Grete Weil

From the trolley car to the train. The train will travel east. The east is nothingness.

On May 10th, 1940, the German army invaded the Netherlands and began their five year occupation of the country under the ruthless administration of the Shutzstaffel or SS, Himmler’s elite Nazi guard, an especially well-regulated command that in less than three years was to orchestrate the plundering, deportation, and murder of eighty percent of Dutch Jewry—Ann Frank and her family included. For many of these Jews the eastern ‘nothingness’ was the infamous Austrian death camp, Mauthausen. Weil’s own husband, the playwright Edgar Weil, was murdered there after being arrested one night in Amsterdam, to where, seeking refuge from the Nazis, they had emigrated in 1933.   

Described as a story of “memory, guilt, and the meaning of responsibility,” Last Trolley From Beethovenstraat is one of the most complex, most poetically compelling Holocaust novels I have read in years. Set in Amsterdam, that “centrifuge,” that “city of pilings, mirror-city, city of circles,” it unfolds through the eyes, the experience, of a young German named Andreas, a yet unremarkable poet and reporter posted to Amsterdam during the Occupation, who is haunted day and night by the incessant rumblings of the trolleys that pass beneath his window where he lives.  

Still, like a good German of the time, a young man born to bourgeois parents who, even after the war, refuse to acknowledge Hitler’s crimes, he does his best to distract himself from the horror unfolding around him each day and from the blatant hostility of the Dutch themselves with the writing of his official weekly reports and with the novel that he has been struggling to complete—the story of a man, a painter and forger named Sebastian L. who forfeits his own style for that of others “out of hunger for money, for life.”

Soon, however, his life in occupied Amsterdam gets dramatically more complicated when he agrees to hide a Jewish boy named Daniel in his apartment, a boy for whom he feels a curious, finally harrowing affinity. This we learn in retrospect—of his secret friendship with Daniel, of Daniel’s eventual capture by the Gestapo—the matter framed, complicated, at the start of the novel, some years after the war is ended, by the protagonist’s troubled marriage to a Jewish woman, Daniel’s twin-like sister, Susanne.

Art plays a poignant, often haunting role in this novel, manifesting itself not only in Andreas’ vocation as a poet, writer, and witness, but also in the fragment of a painting by Paul Klee that the refugee, Daniel, brings with him into hiding, a painting Andreas had happened to glimpse in full in the Rosenbusch home—“green branches, with yellow birds sitting on twigs, hanging upside-down, standing on their heads, and flying without spreading their wings. Above them hovered an orange crescent moon.” 

At heart, Last Trolley From Beethovenstraat is the story of Andreas’ guilt and complicity as a German, of his overwhelming need to reckon with the past, which he attempts to do, at last, by returning alone to Amsterdam, then, finally, by visiting the death camp Mauthausen itself, where his friend Daniel was murdered, hoping against hope to lay this ghost to rest.

Grete Weil was born in Germany in 1906. The author of four novels and two short story collections, she lived most of her life near Munich. Her previous novel, The Bride Price, was awarded the ALTA Translation Prize. She died in Grunwald in 1999.  Last Trolley From Beethovenstraat was translated by John Barett.

Peter Adam Nash

No comments:

Post a Comment