Birnie, Lisa. In Mania’s Memory. Read Leaf, Vancouver 2010. 1/13 This is another wonderful book by someone I know. Lisa is my uncle John Koerner’s second wife, and I’ve enjoyed several wonderful conversations with the two of them.
The book is terrific. Lisa points out that the genre is pretty well populated, and gives us a candid informing look at her hesitation at becoming involved in this difficult story, hesitating partly because she worries it might arouse awkward feelings in herself.
An elderly Jewish woman who nearly died in the German death camps hires a German cleaning lady many years later in Montréal and becomes convinced that she is confronting a concentration camp guard who befriended her and probably saved her life toward the end of the war. A film crew accompanies Lisa and the Jewish lady to Germany, they view two of the camps, and then after Lisa interviews the German woman the two elderly ladies meet and have a long partly obscure conversation.
The main characters are powerful in completely different ways. Mania’s determination manifests itself in superficial style and bravado, overlying the ineradicable spiritual injury she suffered as a girl of 12. Johanne the German is filled with iron discipline, propriety and proud decorum. Her love affair and pregnancy with the icy SS officer is the “love of (her) life” in spite of his heartlessness. We feel the rush of optimistic arrogance everywhere in Germany near the start of the war along with the unbelievable cruelty in the camps.
Plot suspense operates on two levels, a terrifying narrative of Mania’s incarceration and eventual escape, and the question of whether Johanne will admit what she denies throughout her interviews with Lisa: she was the guard Mania recalls.
Lisa also presents her own psychological plot as her feelings about racism and brutality evolve. When she says “How close we are to being a race of savages” she’s talking about all of us. There’s a lovely moment as she watches teenagers entering the Auschwitz Museum laughing and pushing one another, and leaving silent, alone, eyes fixed on the ground.
Nothing derivative or formulaic at all about this wonderfully balanced retrospective World War II story. Only real human beings in the middle of the very worst imaginable living nightmare. (I’m going to quit numerically rating books by people I know, but this one is one of the best I’ve read in a long time.)