Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 16, 2017

The Wish Child, by Catherine Chidgey

Rarely has historical fiction been so well done as in this award-winning novel from New Zealand Author Catherine Chidgey.  The Wish Child won the Ockham New Zealand Award for Fiction this year, and unusually for a work of literary fiction, it has become an international bestseller as well.  When I tell you that the novel employs #MyLeastFavouriteNarrativeDevice – a dead child narrator –  my admiration may seem even more remarkable…

But there is more to this narrator than is immediately obvious, though many will not realise this unless #NotRecommended they sneak a look at the Historical Note at back of the book.  I worked it out about half way through the book but that was only because I had read something very recently that set my antennae on alert.  No, I’m not going to tell you which book that was – suffice to say that the omniscient narrator of The Wish Child tells the story of two children in Germany during WW2.

The device works because there is no attempt to render a childlike voice of innocence.  This narrator knows from the beginning about the evil that lies at the heart of Nazi ambitions, and The Wish Child grapples with the culpability of ordinary Germans under the Nazis by exploring the propaganda that surrounded them. As the narrative traces the years from 1939 to 1945 – from when Germany expects to win the war and to reap the economic benefits of its policies, to when the privations of war affect Berliners and they realise that a crushing defeat is imminent – this narrator, looking back on events, alerts the reader to his stance very early in the novel:

…this is where I’ll start: some weeks later, when the absurd man with the absurd moustache calls off the Peace Rally so he can send his troops into Poland. (p.24)

But that is not the stance of the characters whose lives he observes.  Like the admirers of That Grotesque Man in America, they are captivated by their Führer and the ideas he espouses.  The Berlin housewives queue to hear him…

At the theatre there is standing room only for the Führer’s speech.  The women hand over their furs to the coat-check girl, who cannot, it seems, trouble herself to smile, and may not even be German.  They find their seats, which are ten rows back from the stage and afford an acceptable view of the lectern, until a vast individual with blond braids piled high on her head takes her place in front of them.  It is difficult to see past the bulging hair, which the women agree must be false.  Such persons need to acquaint themselves with mirrors, they remark, but they refuse to let her ruin their evening.  Through their opera glasses they take in the one-man show, the feverish aria tumbling from the stage: swords and blood, blood and earth, betrayal and sacrifice, disguise, salvation: all the traditional and tragic themes.  And how the women applaud!  How they cheer.  (p.41)

(Note the small touches of authorial cunning here: the exclamation mark after ‘applaud’ followed by the deflating full stop after ‘cheer’.)

This narrative voice is also complemented by other narrative devices such as the scripted dialogues between the two Berlin housewives Frau Miller and Frau Müller, and also a schoolteacher indoctrinating her class.  At first The Wish Child subverts the usual compassion that people would feel for the suffering of children in war because the narrator so often sardonically parrots the propaganda: life mostly goes on very comfortably for the German children and their families.  But although nothing specific is said of it in the narration, we who know our history know that about the suffering of other children.  We know that in the early years of the war children were being bombed in Britain and Poland and that unspeakable things were happening to Jewish children and their parents.  So the reader’s sympathies lie elsewhere while the narrator parrots that the war is far away and will be won because the Germans are inherently superior.  No one seems innocent at all, and where there are chillingly vague references to what is really going on, the perfidy nevertheless seems so obvious that – with the reader’s benefit of hindsight – we wonder how Germans could not have known.  And yet because we cannot understand the unfathomable – how, if they knew, a whole nation could have been complicit in such evil – we try to resist believing that they were.

Over and over again this novel asks the questions the world has asked ever since: did they know?  how much did they know? could/should they have known?  how much did a culture of suppressing doubt or criticism contribute? And for us, today, aghast at the current crop of demagogues and their loathsome supporters, and shamed by the inhumane treatment of refugees on Manus Island, we have to ask ourselves, what do we know and what should we be doing?

It is not a spoiler to tell you that Seiglind survives the war to take a job in 1995 reassembling shredded surveillance documents from East Berlin after reunification, because the first chapter tells us so.  And as you know if you’ve read Anna Funder’s Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, this project is actually real.  It is an attempt to find out what happened to people who disappeared under the Soviet regime, by reassembling what’s left of the records.

She has developed her own system, as all the puzzlers have.  She lifts the scraps from the bags as gently as possible to preserve the original strata, sorting them according to size, paper colour, texture, weight, as well as type face or handwriting, before fitting ragged edge to ragged edge to restore the destroyed file.  It can take days to complete a single page, and always there are pieces she cannot home, holes she cannot fill.  Sixteen thousand sacks, six million scraps of paper – it will take centuries to finish – but she trains herself to focus only on the snippets in front of her, to find the patterns, the matches.  (p.15)

The story then reverts to 1939, the link to events in 1995 not explained until late in the novel.  Siggi lives in affluence in middle-class Berlin, where her parents absorb all the propaganda and willingly cooperate with everything the Nazis ask them to do.   Siggi’s father works in the censorship office, removing from books and documents words like ‘promise’,. ‘love’ and ‘mercy’ with his scissors.  (Scraps of poetry are woven through the narrative, with increasing numbers of words excised, eventually rendering the poems incomprehensible). Siggi’s mother gets the samovar she has long yearned for when she attends an auction of ‘abandoned’ goods and is proud to be raising good German children to please the Führer.  Her children are perfectly safe, she believes (despite her nerves), so there is no need to evacuate them to the countryside.  She looks forward to a great future when Germany is unified and all the impure people who are unfit to live have been disposed of.

Siggi is pleased to wear the uniform of the Hitler Youth, and her class visits all kinds of factories which support the war effort.  Through the harangues of her teacher, we learn that the factories make:

  • radios that will pick up only German stations, unlike English and American radios […] that do not discriminate and will blurt out all kinds of dangerous and disgusting stories that have no place in a decent home (p.56);
  • fabric in a cheerful yellow, the colour of buttercups with a pattern of stars to be made into items so Germans will be safe and not overrun by poison (p.142); and
  • icons of the Führer for reverential display in the house, along with a warning that those few […] who really do not have the Führer can go home and tell [their] Mutti and Vati that they need to fix this, and the sooner the better (p.86).

As time goes by her teacher enthusiastically praises the chilling inventiveness of the Germans who have found ways to recycle the products of their genocidal policies, such as human hair. The housewives’ enthusiasm becomes muted when one tentatively bemoans the rationing and quality of the  soap.  Her friend’s response is both a warning and a threat: she should not listen to the rumours about the soap and she should take care with her remarks because any criticism is perilous.

Erich, meanwhile, is living in the countryside near Leipzig.  There is something not-quite-right about Erich’s early life, but the narrative moves on, pausing only to note snippets like this one:

I watch Erich with his new book, each page cut into three.  He makes a bear with a lion’s body and the legs of a dog; he joins an elephant’s head to a duck with goat’s hooves.  It seems there are endless combinations, a whole menagerie of the fake, all those turned away from the ark and left to face the flood.  It is troubling to me, all this severing and grafting. I do not blame the boy because he does not understand that the creatures are impossible, and that even if such a specimen were produced it could not survive; it would be too deformed, too far from normal.  The adults, though, watch him turning the pages with his little fingers, and they watch him smiling because they smile, and laughing because they laugh, and nobody finds the book – nor even the idea of the book – in the least bit troublesome.  (p.40)

(I find myself wondering how I would interpret this passage if I didn’t know about Mengele.)

Erich’s father is on the Russian front, and as the foreign workers and the helpful Hitler Youth disappear from the farm there is hunger, but his mother censors his letters for any signs of sadness.  She labours long and hard over a birthday gift for the Führer after the abortive assassination attempt, to show him we love him. 

The reader’s sympathies shift dramatically when Erich – still only a boy – abandons his home to fight in the defence of Berlin as the Russians advance.  The narrator’s dispassionate tone alters:

But this cannot be right.  This cannot be Berlin.  The buildings are crumbling and collapsed, sliced open, insides hanging out, windows missing, chimneys toppled, roofs gone; here and there Erich can see right into abandoned rooms where mirrors and clocks hang crooked on waterstained walls.  S-Bahn cars barricade streets littered with baths and couches and tables and radiators and beds, and boys on bicycles wind their way through the mounds of rubble with Panzerfausts clipped to their handlebars.  Ashes are falling like dead leaves, like dirty snow, catching in Erich’s hair, settling on his shoulders.  In the ruins mothers squat before campfires stoked with books, cooking for their children, and crosses made from chair legs mark hasty graves in front yards.  The trees are charred, the lamp posts bent double, and a great yellow haze hangs over it all, blocking out the sky, stinking of sulphur and gas and things that need burying deep.  No, this cannot be right.  (p.278)

Siggi, aged just twelve, rescues him and they take refuge in a damaged theatre but there is worse to come…

The Wish Child is a remarkable book, tackling one of the darkest issues in human history in a new way that -particularly in its concluding episodes – resists easy judgements.

Author: Catherine Chidgey
Title: The Wish Child
Publisher: Chatto & Windus, 2017
ISBN: 9781784741112
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books $29.99

Available from Fishpond: The Wish Child


Responses

  1. As you say what were the Germans thinking when they elected Hitler. The mother of a school friend was in Hitler Youth and was sent to work on farms, but she said little more, and I probably didn’t know enough to ask. I think if I were inclined to read this type of book I’d seek out one written in Germany.

  2. Oh, I should have said, the author spent some years living in Berlin during the 1990s, and she is a translator of German (including some of the poetry in the book). So it’s not a novel written remotely, so to speak…

    • Good! I do like my novels to be written out of personal experience. Currently reading a novel about the Vietnam war by a North Vietnamese.

      • Oh, which one?

        • Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War

          • Ah, that’s the one that I tried to read and had to give up because I had a pirated copy and the pages were all awry.

            • Oh Lisa – did you not receive the copy I sent you?

              • Oh, yes, Glenda, I did, and I thank you again for your generosity. *blush* I have not yet tackled it for a second time because I have let myself get distracted by other things. And right now I have 6 reserves all in from the library all at the same time and two of them 400+ pages so once again I am distracted by other things. I wish I could clone myself!

  3. Lisa! How timely – we have just discussed this at ANZLitlovers too – I really enjoyed this book and rated it highly. Most of the group enjoyed it. xx

    • Hi Kate, I think it would be a brilliant book for discussion… everything from the moral issues to when exactly different readers worked things out!


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