Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 4, 2021

Remote Sympathy, by Catherine Chidgey

Catherine Chidgey is a versatile author: as you can see from this summary at Wikipedia she has written in a variety of styles and across wide-ranging topics.  I discovered her work when The Wish Child became a bestseller in 2017, was captivated by the way she captured contemporary life in The Beat of the Pendulum in 2018 and then was lucky to find a copy of her debut novel In a Fishbone Church.  She has won multiple awards both in New Zealand and internationally, and has just been longlisted for the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards for her latest novel Remote Sympathy.

You might remember that I reported on the launch of this book via Zoom. This is how I summarised the story at the time:

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 Anna, his future 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.

Source: Wikipedia

The transparent man was on display in the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden which was bombed during the war, but there are replicas in many museums around the world.  But in the novel, when Doktor Lenard Weber sees it, it is unique, and it is the catalyst for his invention: a cure for cancer called the Sympathetic Vitaliser.  At the Holy Spirit Hospital in Frankfurt, he gets approval to run a trial, and remarkably, two patients with cancer go into remission.  Weber is a good scientist, and he knows these are just cases of spontaneous remission, and he’s disappointed but not surprised when these two cases eventually die.

All this is taking place amid the Nazi rise to power, and before long the restrictions that apply to Lenard’s Jewish wife and child force them apart.  Things get difficult for him at the hospital, but shortly after he is dismissed, he is summoned to the Buchenwald slave labour camp near Weimar, where to his dismay he is required to rebuild his Sympathetic Vitaliser in order to treat Greta Hahn, the terminally ill wife of the camp administrator, Dietrich Hahn.

The story is told through four narrators: Doktor Lenard Weber’s letters to his daughter Lotte; the imaginary diary of Frau Greta Hahn; the Private Reflections of One Thousand Citizens of Weimar; and an Interview with Former SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn.  The genius of this narration is that the story progresses chronologically, but the focus remains on the personal whilst also portraying Germany’s moral abyss.  The war is largely off-stage, as is the Holocaust.  Although he is writing to his daughter in 1946 from Frankfurt, Weber’s role is mostly as a witness, explaining to his child and to the reader about what has happened.  Greta is preoccupied by domestic concerns: she is anxious about her child, she misses her mother, she likes gadding about with her vivacious neighbour Emma, and she is vaguely troubled about the camp because it represents danger to her and her family. The One Thousand Citizens are a kind of obscene Greek Chorus: blind to what they do not want to see, proclaiming self-justification and resentment of the liberating American forces who forced them to confront what had been done in the camp.  And Dietrich, in his postwar interview on trial for his life, is a grotesque villain who loves his wife and takes terrible risks to try to save her.

The blurb inside the book sums it up better than I can:

A tour de force about the evils of obliviousness, Remote Sympathy compels us to question our continuing and wilful ability to look the other way in a world that is once more in thrall to the idea that everything—even facts, truth and morals—is relative.

The novel is utterly absorbing.  Beautifully written, historically authentic, and emotionally engaging, Remote Sympathy confirms Catherine Chidgey’s preeminent place in New Zealand literature.

You can see other reviews at Alys on the Blog and at Read Close.

Author: Catherine Chidgey
Title: Remote Sympathy
Publisher: Victoria University Press, NZ, 2020
ISBN: 9781776563203, pbk., 526 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond, $38.52.

Available from Fishpond: Remote Sympathy (BTW Booko’s comparison price on this is wrong: they’re adding $7.95 shipping to the $38.52 cover price but shipping on books is free from NZ to Australia.)

Image credit:

Transparent man: Datei:DASA gläserner Mensch frontal.jpg – Wikipedia


Responses

  1. This sounds like an intriguing read, particularly as I have a weakness for novels told from multiple points of view. The blurb’s reference to “our continuing and willful ability to look the other way” in a world of moral relativism hits close to home, in this time of resurgent white supremacy and racial violence (in my own country at least).

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    • It’s everywhere, I think.
      I wish I could say that Australia is free of it, because we are highly successful multicultural society, but it’s not.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This does sound fascinating. I hadn’t realised that all those decades ago they were looking for treatments for cancer; we seem to think this is a modern day scourge

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    • The interesting thing is, that it’s not such a weird idea. Today they zap gall stones and kidney stones with lasers, which is sort of the same idea.

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  3. […] Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey (Victoria University Press), see my review […]

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