Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 8, 2020

Remote launch of Remote Sympathy (2020): Catherine Chidgey in conversation with Tracey Slaughter

Ask, and you shall receive they say, and sometimes it’s true.  That “one ardently loyal fan in Melbourne” is me. When I received an email from Victoria University Press in NZ that they were launching Catherine Chidgey’s new novel, Remote Sympathy, I had the cheek to ask them if they could make it a virtual launch so that I could ‘attend’.  And they did!

(And there were other people attending by Zoom who couldn’t otherwise have been there, so I’m glad I asked.)

Even more miraculous is that Zoom worked this time!!!

Karen Slaughter started by talking about the courage it takes to speak up in writing about momentous matters.  The story, she said, chooses the author, and Catherine’s previous novel The Wish Child illuminated the horror of Nazism through the eyes of children.  (See my review here). Knowing what Catherine went through to write the bleak story of that era, she understands how much courage and stamina Catherine needed to go back to that time in this new book, and yet she would not rest until she had finished it.

It’s a novel that shows us who we are, exposes our frail connections, and of human impulses to violence.  There is no chance of remaining remote as you read it, you will find yourself wired to it, with every circuit.  It is spell binding, from a time in recent history that has much to teach us in our modern era.

Catherine said it was a complex book to write, and she acknowledged a great many people who helped her.  (I won’t name them in case I get them wrong, but they included survivors of Buchenwald, researchers, and people who advised on French, pianos, dentistry, and Judaism).

One of the guiding images of the novel is ‘The Transparent Man’, an installation in Vienna.  This was a model of a male body which had been on display in the 1930s, which Catherine knew of from her research for The Wish Child.  ‘The Transparent Man’ was a sensation because it was the first time people had been able to see a model of the human body wired to show how internal body parts work.  In the novel, Lenard, a doctor who is hoping to find a treatment for cancer, goes to see this model and that’s where he meets his wife, who is Jewish.  He doesn’t find the cure he’s looking for, but he gets sent to the camp to cure the wife of a prominent Nazi so he has to pretend that he can.

In answer to a question about tyranny and people’s belief that it can’t happen here… Catherine said that she first visited Buchenwald when studying in Germany, and she saw how close it was to Weimar — the cradle of German enlightenment and civilisation.  That proximity informs the title: it’s the inability of the people of Weimar to admit to what was going on in their midst, and also the name of the doctor’s theory about curing cancer.  The people of Weimar saw thousands of people arrive by train, and they saw these prisoners leave the camp each day to work as slave labourers, and they could all see the condition of the prisoners yet they turned a blind eye to it.  Indeed, they objected to naming the camp after Goethe, but not to the existence of the camp itself.  They were also much exercised about cutting down a stand of trees to build the camp because of a legend about the tree under which Goethe sat: this was a sacred site to Germans, but the tree symbolised something different to the prisoners.  It represented all that was gone of civilised Germany. (The tree was burnt to bits by allied bombing, but there’s a reference in the book to a sculpture called The Last Face by Bruno Apitz which was made from the remnants of the tree).

Karen raised the importance of trying to understand what happened in Nazi Germany.  Paraphrasing what she said (I hope accurately): When we stop trying to do that, we are on the route to accepting the Holocaust and other horrors.  Catherine talked about the characterisation of her Nazi officer Dietrich, because it was important to show him as a complex human being rather than a stereotype.  She wanted to show what happens when a very powerful man faces a personal tragedy like his wife getting cancer.  He was based on a real life Nazi, (as were some other characters) and she researched him by reading about the Nuremburg Trials which made him and others seem quite normal.  (I’ve read about this effect in Rebecca West’s account of these trials in A Train of Powder, 1955).  Some of Dietrich’s dialogue is direct from recordings of the Nuremburg Trials but she changed his characterisation to achieve complexity: he’s a husband and a father as well as a Nazi brute.

Catherine wanted the citizens of Weimar to be in the story too.  She showed slides of the Weimar citizens who were forced by the US liberators to visit Buchenwald, and these photos show how upbeat and cheerful they were as they entered, and how subdued they were when they came out… But then, devastatingly, Catherine told us how the following Sunday there were declarations from the church pulpit that they were not to blame…

All the main characters all gradually reveal themselves.  Greta, Dietrich’s wife keeps her distance in her beautiful villa on an idyllic site very close to the camp, and she amuses herself with shopping and home decorating, and taking her son out to enjoy falconry.  But she comes in contact and develops a friendship with Lenard the prisoner when he is tasked with curing her cancer.  She doesn’t ask her husband about his work, and he doesn’t tell her about her diagnosis.  She maintains a stoic silence about whether the treatment is working or not, and it’s ambiguous whether she is complicit with Lenard in pretending about it, or not.

Catherine said that on her research trips she was always impressed by the way the Germans have been willing to interrogate their past, and they were assiduous in helping her find the records she needed.  She quoted Primo Levi who said that language alone is capable of regenerating truth: language contains everything, he said.  She hasn’t included the gruesome horror of the camp, but instead wanted to express the sorrow of Buchenwald in a different way.

As the last survivors of the Holocaust pass away, and successive generations try to fathom the unfathomable, writing about the Holocaust moves into a different phase.  I believe that it is crucial for new writing about the Holocaust to be respectful and authentic, and especially not to be romanticised.  So I am looking forward to reading this book…

My copy of Remote Sympathy is somewhere between New Zealand and Melbourne!  If you want a copy too, until stocks arrive in Australia, the cheapest way to buy it is through Fishpond: Remote Sympathy

My thanks to the tekkies at Victoria University who made this Zoom session possible and to the Internet gods who made it work:)


  1. Hooray! So glad Zoom worked for you this time. This does sound an interesting and powerful book. It’s so important to remember the horrors. The rhetoric and behaviour of my own government is deeply worrying and we can never be complacent over such events never happening again.


    • LOL I’m not getting over-excited just yet, but I think I might have sorted the problem for the other launch, stay tuned!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I understand the arguments you make and which you say the author makes, but I will not read fictionalised accounts of the Holocaust, however well researched. I respect the author’s need to discover for herself what happened, but I don’t believe that licenses her to turn it into a novel.


    • As I said, more or less, in a different context to Theresa just yesterday, reading is a leisure pursuit and we are all free to make our own choices and not have them judged by other people.
      What I would recommend to you and others instead of fiction, apart from Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, whose books are, I think, essential texts, are Rebecca West’s account of the Nuremburg Trials, A Train of Powder, and Reading the Holocaust by Inga Clendinnen.


  3. Wonderful! What a treat for you!


    • I am still quite chuffed by the kindness of it. In so many ways, the pandemic has enabled experiences for me as a reader that I could otherwise never have had, and it’s nice to have that to offset the negatives.
      (Though, I hasten to say, for us the consequences have been social and financial. We have not lost anyone we love to C-19, nor do we know anyone who is suffering the long term recuperation from it. Nothing could offset that for us.)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. How wonderful that you could join in!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. […] might remember that I reported on the launch of this book via Zoom. This is how I summarised the story at the […]


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