“If Cain killed Abel and Abel had no children, who are we?”
Katja Petrovskaya , Maybe Esther
It may seem appropriate to have written this book review a week and a half after the outbreak of the Second World War. You say “Wrong words and wrong dates!” “The Second World War broke out 75 years ago.” That is certainly true at the level of history fossilized as history. But who pulls it in the torrent of the stories and drives, but especially when it comes to telling the biography of a family over several generations, to imagine or to fake or in the mode of literary writing a family biography in the first place to assure – along with all the childhood patterns and the attempt to find a father, a grandfather, a grandma, a great aunt – then these events are as close or as distant as the imago allows. September 1 is close by and central to the events in Eastern Europe: a significant date. In the case of Katja Petrovskaya’s first novel, history remains the factum brutum, yet this pure hard fact must not have the last word. Writing means – even in young years – working in the mode of the text many times against death and oblivion clot pick up time: hold something as remembering and pick up which was believed lost forever. Only in the mode of the concept, in narration, however, does the visualization of events succeed, they become concrete, in the first instance life brings itself into an arrangement – admittedly a constellative one, which could always be represented afresh and in ever different transcriptions. Katja Petrovskaya’s book project does this narrative, though it is less about the transcriptions.
“Maybe Esther” is a confusing book, a disturbing book downright, because it pushes us into the middle of the story, dives down into the past. Namely, on the one hand in our own, private family history, if we ask ourselves: “Where were my ancestors at the time of German fascism and what did they do in those years?” Insofar these family histories are charged with that history as historiography that greatly affects the life of the individual especially if these people do not belong to the approved majority. “Perhaps Esther” tells as a novel (or as a factual report, we do not know), which subtitles “stories”, also such circumstances in which private and social circumstances, coincidence and necessity bind together.
Katja Petrovskaya proposes the family album and the pedigree board with skilled fingers as the author. In this view of the album, the private and the historical are combined as text: as a fiction or as a place of remembrance. In any case, on the one hand, texts of this kind are places of worship, on the other hand, we need them to make sure of a life that is also our own. Such a sharp leap into the past, which begins at Petrovskaya on the Berlin main station with a look at the Bombardier advertising – nomen est omen -, confused in the smooth-ironed present. A journey to the East – from Berlin to Warsaw. The past has not and never has passed, if we look at it genealogically, when we go back into the archives or bend over the gray or brown, over the yellowed photo albums with the interleaves to take our origin as an image in the view , At first glance, it seems at first to be quite harmless photographs of people. People who have not been around for a long time, deceased. People being recovered from the albums. For the knowing eye, however, these people are at the same time drawn with certain place names, which hover in the background and still invisibly above the shadowed as sword of the threatening future; Names that they did not know before, that they would once belong to their lives and what is left of them and that will determine their future, unless they fled east from Kiev, Lodz or Warsaw: Auschwitz, Birkenau , Treblinka, Majdanek, the ghettos whose inhabitants were gradually liquidated. By willing German executors and their helpers. From our ancestors.
But under this optic of death increasingly forgotten is the fact that there was also a world before the Shoah: when Warsaw was still intact, when the ghetto was not yet a ghetto, a world in which the ghetto was called Stetl, a world of diverse Jewish culture of Eastern Europe, but also including the pogroms in Russia: from exclusion and poverty to the will to leave the ghetto. Again this is this book: The subjunctive of “What if …”
If you want to read about the sunken world of Judaism in Europe, read Barbara Beuys’s book Heimat und Hölle. Directing Jewish life in Europe through two millennia ‘. But also “perhaps Esther” tells – rhapsodising, of course, and in orbiting search movements – of this world, trying to bring a family genealogy in the Scriptures. Of the relatives in Warsaw, or in Kiev, that woman with a name, no name, no man’s name, perhaps Esther, speculation about a biography, grandparents, great-uncle and aunt. Some things can be narrated, because it has been handed down in the stories and pubs of a family – independent, of course, the truth content – others remain in the dark or are based on legends and spun yarns. But even these variants are in their own way narratives that belong to it. However, this also affects the truth question of narration. How was it really? And what is this “really”?
“I thought you just needed to talk about those few people who happened to be my relatives, and you’ve got the whole twentieth century in your pocket.” But this story-story affair is much more difficult to write , The autopoietic process, the question of how a text is generated, suggests that it simply can not stay with the simple retelling of the biographical material and the images. And so, in this novel, at the same time, the reflection on narration as a subtext resonates with the plan as a prelude to the theme. But this story spreads apart, pointing to more complicated. Petrovskaya is highly conventional in her narrative, but the very fact that she follows the conventions so strictly, the narrative concept in the balance. Is it a biographical document that is literarily reworked or slightly alienated, as we know it from Walter Kempowski’s “Deutscher Chronik”, or is it pure literature, and that means nothing but fictionalization? What about the fact that the text – at first glance – does not even separate between the author and the narrator, both – seemingly at least – in one. Whether this intertwining happens with intention or not remains completely secondary. Because only the text itself with its form, its construction, its construction carries this story. Even this trait of the wrong or the right name as author and / or protagonist is the sign of modern narration. The most prominent example is undoubtedly that “Marcel” in Proust is “research”. However, this name is mentioned as identification mode only once in this work. (Find the job, dear readers!)
In a distant sense, “Maybe Esther” is also a book about the photography or the documentation of the actually nondescriptable horror and could be read in combination with Helmut Lethens “The Shadow of the Photographer”. (In particular, because of this motif of the shadow, which – from the outside as well as the photographer? – falls into the picture and marks two completely different orders: “On one of the slides, a shadow falls on the patterned dress of a Jewish girl of the photographer ?! “) Also due to their Subjectivierungsweisen touch both books. I do not want to hide the fact that I do not like this look in many places, because it wallows in the emotions, which is not bad at all, as long as you get beyond that at some point. In Lethen, even more than in Petrovskaya, who in a sense cultivates an anti-academism, and thus just refers to it and merely continues its course. We can not get rid of a certain form of fateful subjectivity. Petrovskaya at least masters the spell in the form of storytelling. Because narration always means to say “not me”, “not-me”. Whether wanted or unintentional.