This review was first published in the print edition of Landfall 241
Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey (Victoria University Press, 2020), 528pp, $35
Even in the idle days of early January I struggled to finish Catherine Chidgey’s Remote Sympathy. It is 528 pages long, and I was unable to read it at night; sleep afterwards proved impossible. The novel is set almost entirely in Buchenwald, one of Germany’s largest and most infamous concentration camps of the Second World War. Accordingly, even the most ignorant reader must know they will enter a world of unmitigated horror. The early optimism offered by protagonist Doktor Lenard Weber’s joyful marriage to Jewess Anna, and his invention of the Sympathetic Vitaliser, a machine he hopes will cure cancer through electrotherapy, is necessarily short-lived. There can be no happy ending to a Holocaust story, even if it is fiction, even if the hero, by some miracle, survives.
In 1930s Frankfurt the toxic fog of the Third Reich is rising inexorably. When Weber’s medical career becomes compromised by his marriage to Anna and by his own ‘difficult ancestry’, the perceived ‘taint’ of Jewish blood uncovered in his family tree, the couple divorce and Anna enters a ‘safer’ marriage of convenience. It does not save them. Rules tighten further, transportations begin, and in 1943 Anna and daughter Lotte are deported, perhaps to Theresienstadt; and Weber, a ‘Mischling’ now classified as a political enemy of the Reich, is imprisoned at Buchenwald. In his letters to Lotte, written from Frankfurt in 1946, we receive his account, pragmatic, almost dispassionate in tone, of the human hell that he witnesses and endures therein.
The imaginary diary of Greta, youthful wife of SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn, the camp’s ambitious administrator who takes up office in the year of Weber’s arrival, forms the second voice of the narrative. Out of her depth in the farcically extravagant community of the Reich’s local rulers, Greta senses but never directly confronts the horrors that lie on the other side of the forest. Under the tutelage of Emmi Wolff, wife of the prison compound commander, Greta learns to navigate and exploit their life of parasitic luxury, but her unease persists. Sour smoke from the camp’s chimney infuses the air, periodic gunshots signal that another prisoner has been ‘shot while attempting to escape’, and the citizens of nearby Weimar avoid eye contact with her on her excursions to the town. Her tentative questions receive only glib answers, however, and truth remains out of sight beyond the trees.
The presence of the captive masses is sublimated instead through an unnerving parade of constricted animals: limp-necked poultry are strung up in the cellar, the falconry keeps tethered birds of prey, the residents’ private zoo boasts caged monkeys and bears, and rabbits crammed in a hutch are produced for the children’s entertainment. Most powerful among these metaphoric creatures is the animal kingdom that Sturmbannführer Hahn carves from oak, two by two, for their small son Karl-Heinz. Without an ark to shelter them, or a Noah to lead them, these wooden animals are moved about the house at Karl-Heinz’s whim, jammed into the carriages of his toy railway, balanced precariously on the edges of stairs or filling bathtubs. When the boy is compelled to sacrifice a tiger as punishment for an act of cruelty, he surrenders one of the pair and saves the other. Yet there is barely a difference between them, no discernible distinction to determine why one is retained while the other is tossed into the fire. Survival is arbitrary, merely a matter of chance.
The third narrative voice, sharing the private reflections of one thousand citizens of Weimar, is perhaps the most chilling, and timely, in its veracity. Beneath the bourgeois chatter and litany of complaint, a solid, impermeable layer of complicity, delusion and denial is revealed, in which misinformation proliferates like bacteria, culpability dissolves, and the individual voices of humanity and reason are stomped into silence. Yet we wish to believe that at least some of them are truly ignorant of the atrocities that take place on their doorstep. They are, after all, just ordinary people.
Sturmbannführer Hahn delivers the fourth narrative thread, in recordings made by an unidentified interviewer in 1956. Most directly involved, of all the narrators, with the actuality of torture, starvation and death that constitute the daily business of the camp, his character cannot hope to engage a reader’s sympathy; we know too much, and even the most accomplished author cannot render the inhuman human. Yet against all odds, Hahn becomes real. Desperate for professional and peer recognition, beset with personal insecurities and overwhelmed by the burgeoning administrative challenges of the camp, he worries constantly about his performance. In a line of defence made commonplace in the trials that followed the war, Hahn details for his listener the systems and regulations by which he was bound, the shortages and shifting parameters that rendered him powerless to improve the rations or conditions of prisoners, the economies he was forced to exercise to meet the targets imposed on him. Among the barrage of calculations and statistics that Hahn recounts, the mounting tally of corpses—by war’s end too many even to bury or burn—becomes just one more number that is beyond his control.
In his operational account of the workings of the nightmare that was Buchenwald, Hahn clearly speaks with the brash voice of the Reich. So entirely invested is he in the doctrine of his party, and in the security and prestige it promises him, that those interred in the camp retain no more humanity for him than the collection of gold teeth he hoards in a chocolate box. Yet he loves his wife and child, and when Greta develops cancer he risks all that he has gained to bring Weber to their home, bribing him to reconstruct his Sympathetic Vitaliser machine and administer its treatments. Each guilty of a selfish failure to act, when they could have, to save their wives, the two men now form a grim, unequal alliance, observing the battle within Greta’s frail body while around them the Reich crumples and implodes in the final days of the war.
In his opening letters to Lotte, Weber informs her that his story will contain three miracles. While the first transpires to be no more than fortuitous coincidence, and the second a temporary and insubstantial reprieve, the third miracle proves to be real, a flickering afterthought of hope that can do little to dispel the cumulative darkness of the novel. In reality, of course, there were no miracles. Those who had been marked to perish and yet survived the Holocaust did so by chance, or through the will and courage of other humans who stepped into the path of fate and pulled them from under the oncoming wheels of the machine. Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, the pharmaceuticals company now leading the battle to save the world’s people with its Covid-19 vaccine, marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2021 by sharing the story of his own parents. Sephardic Jews from Thessaloniki, Greece, the couple were among only four percent of the city’s Jewish population of 50,000 to survive. That they lived was due to the courage, altruism and quick thinking of others, Christians and Jews, who acted without hesitation when the opportunity arose to offer aid. Such human interventions, those individual small acts that tip the scale from death to life, are the stuff of any great war story. They offer the reader a lighted candle and the rush of relief that accompanies the evidence of enduring good even as we are confronted with the terrible scale of our human capacity for evil.
Remote Sympathy extends no such relief. There is no real redemption even for those who survive this story; the crushing weight of its irrefutability renders everything dark. It is not, then, a book I could enjoy, yet I found much to admire within it. On occasion the persistent revelations of research drown out the narrative, and we teeter on the tightrope strung between fiction and fact, but Chidgey’s elegant, rhythmic prose is expertly controlled, and the heavy slabs of history are interleaved with delicate, polished imagery steeped in subtle menace. The creeping shifts in civil liberties, attitudes and ambitions, and the pressure and paranoia that spread as Hitler’s Reich gains momentum, are drawn with shrewd, oblique strokes. The settings and rituals of both prison and privileged life are made original by vivid sensory detail. The endless lists—of food, of clothing, of photographs, of fixtures, of songs and rules and punishments and ways to die—support the body of the narrative like so many stacked bones. It is a brilliant and terrible book, one that I might wish I could unread, and yet am grateful I cannot.
RACHEL O’CONNOR’s short fiction and nonfiction have been published in Ireland and New Zealand and broadcast on RNZ. Her first novel, Whispering City (2015), was recently translated into Greek. While working on her second novel, she is completing a creative PhD at the University of Auckland, where she is also a tutor of literature and creative writing.