This is what everyone would remember about his mother: her home was immaculate. Even in a place where cleanliness was pursued with religious zeal, Klara’s household was renowned for its faultless order. In Klara’s mind, there was no gradation between purity and filth.
She had sinned as a girl, made pregnant by her married uncle. Adultery stained her soul black, and God punished her as she deserved. Her sin-child died.
So did her aunt, and Klara became her uncle’s second wife, dutifully raising her stepchildren, keeping them very clean and very quiet, so her uncle-husband would not become angry and bring out his leather whip. Her husband was no more merciful than her God. Her second son died, and then her small daughter.
Soon after she buried little Ida, Klara became pregnant again. Her fourth child was a sickly boy whose weakness her uncle-husband despised. Klara was ashamed that her children had died. She hovered over the new baby anxiously, told him constantly that she loved and needed him, hoping that her neighbors would notice how well he was cared for. Hoping that her uncle-husband would come to approve of her son. Hoping that God would hear her pleas, and let this child live.
Her prayers, it seemed, were answered, but the neighbors were bemused by Klara’s mothering. She nursed her little boy for two years. He’d squirm away, or turn his face from her, but she pushed her nipple into his mouth regardless of what troubled him. She fed and fed and fed that child. Food was medicine. Food could ward off numberless, nameless, lurking diseases. “Eat,” she’d plead. “Eat, or you’ll get sick and die.” It was immoderate, even in a village where mothers expected children to swallow whatever was put before them, and to clean their plates.
In adulthood, Klara’s son would have nightmares about suffocation. He would suck on a finger in times of stress, or stuff himself with chocolates. He was obsessed with his body’s odors and became a vegetarian, convinced this diet reduced his propensity to sweat excessively and improved the aroma of his intestinal gas. He discussed nutritional theories at length, but had a poor appetite. He could not watch others eat without trying to spoil their enjoyment. He’d call broth “corpse tea,” and pointed out that a roast suckling pig looked “just like a cooked baby.”
Whenever he looked in a mirror, he would see his mother’s eyes: china blue and frightened. Frightened of dirt, of her husband, of illness, and of God. Her son, too, was frightened. Frightened of priests and hunters, of cigarette smokers and skiers, of liberals, journalists, germs and dirt, of gypsies, judges, and Americans. He was frightened of being wrong, of being weak, of being effeminate. Frightened of poets and of Poles, of academics and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Frightened of moonlight and horses, of snow and water and the dark. Frightened of microbes and spirochetes, of feces, and of old men, and of the French.
The very blood in his veins was a danger to him. There were birth defects and feeble-mindedness in his incestuous family. His uncle-father was a bastard, and Klara’s son worried all his life that unsavory gossip about his ancestry would become public. He was frightened of sexual intercourse and never had children, afraid his tainted blood would be revealed in them. He was terrified of cancer, which took his mother’s life, and horrified that he had suckled at diseased breasts.
How could anyone live with so much fear?
His solution was to simplify. He sought and seized one all-encompassing explanation for the existence of sin and disease, for all his failures and disappointments. There was no weakness in his parents, his blood, his mind. He was faultless; others were filth. He could not change his china blue eyes, but he could change the world they saw. He would identify the secret source of every evil, and root it out, annihilating at a stroke all that threatened him. He would free Europe of pollution and defilement–only health and confidence and purity and order would remain!
Are such grim and comic facts significant, or merely interesting? Here’s another: the doctor who could not cure Klara Hitler’s cancer was Jewish.
“No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there’s always a thread of grace.”
Published in 2005, this novel is a fictional account of WWII and specifically, the war that raged in the Italian countryside. Ironically, the first chapter is the only one that mentions Hitler himself, concentrating mostly on the Italian peasant revolt against the fascists. Mostly what you see is a portrait of the people: some hiding, some local, some Germans.
It’s poignant. It’s heart-wrenching. It actually made me cry.
Even the Germans.
Through this distinct illustration of the humanity, not only of the victims of the Holocaust, but of the Germans serving the Nazis, you begin to see just how this atrocity could happen. People are merely people, following orders, not questioning the validity of their leader’s arguments.
In a nutshell, this book is an amazing portrait of survival, in a time when not many survived.
I read Ms. Russell’s The Sparrow many years ago, and was excited to read this novel.
They are completely different, but her style of writing is eerily similar.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone. It’s not necessarily depressing, for there are moments of joy and retribution.