Monday, May 22, 2017

The Photographer- Meike Ziervogel

I've been following Meike's work since the early days of her publishing house, Peirene Press, and later as a novelist with great interest. One (of many) reasons for this is because of her interest in dealing with the experience of recent German history.

My grandmother was German, she met my grandfather when he was stationed in her village, he left her pregnant, and she followed him back to England. It's not clear to me if he was expecting her or not, I've heard when she turned up he was engaged to another woman, nevertheless they did marry, though not happily. I remember her as a bitter, unapproachable, woman who never talked about her past at all. She told her children that they had basically been simple peasants who were scared by Hitler and didn't really know what was going on, which they accepted, and in turn so did her grandchildren.

The reason I'm sharing all this is that I had a lightbulb moment a few years ago hearing Meike at the Kibworth book festival when she talked about this as a great national lie. Since then one of my aunts has been in touch with her German cousins and it's become clear that in our family at least it was a lie, though an entirely understandable one for a German girl trying to make a life in England in the 1940's to tell.

'The Photographer' is based on the experiences of Meike's own grandparents, and mostly covers the point at the end of the war when eleven million Germans fled from east to west. The central couple, Albert and Trude, meet and fall in love in 1933 without the approval of Trude's mother, Agatha. Albert is a photographer and together they travel, build a reasonably successful business, have a son, and despite Albert's occasional infidelities are happy together. To Agatha however, Albert is a threat to the security of both her daughter and grandson, so when the chance arises she reports him to the authorities and he's sent to the front.

All of them survive the war, Agatha, Trude, and Peter manage to get to a refugee camp in the west, and eventually Albert finds them through the Red Cross, at which point the process of rebuilding a family begins.

For me this is by far and away the best book Ziervogel has written yet. I'm aware that my response to it is filtered through my own family history and the sidelights it throws on that, but I also think the constraints that following her own history have placed on Ziervogel give the book a particular strength. It's a combination of knowing something of how these people really acted, and of their stories, even if only half talked of, have been distilled through generations of memory and telling.

At the centre of it is how will Albert and Trude deal with what Agatha did; will there be confrontation, silence, understanding, lies? Can there be forgiveness, happiness? Or does this individual act of betrayal even matter that much after all that follows it, would have followed it anyway?

The way the story unfolds echos fairy tale archetypes, it even ends happily. I went to the launch for this last week and one of the questions that interested me was if that happy ending rang true. My own view is that the book ends in a happy moment, which isn't quite the same as a happy ending, and I think that does ring true.

There's a lot going on in this book, and a lot more I'd like to discuss, which will be hard without giving spoilers (when I'm done with this post I'll be looking for other blog reviews to comment on). I'm particularly interested in the relationships between the 4 principles and the way they deal with what they know and don't know, but it's also important to note that it's only really now that a book like this can be written about that particular bit of history. It's interesting too in light of the current refugee crisis, and so much more.

I honestly can't recommend this one highly enough, please read it!


  1. Thank you for drawing our attention to this book, it sounds fascinating and not something I would have come across otherwise. Order placed!

  2. I really, really, liked this one. It gave me a lot to think about. I read it around the same time I read the Peirene title 'Her Father's Daughter' and they made interesting companions as both explore the rebuilding of relationships after a father has been absent during the war. I'm interested in the effect being on the 'losing' side has too (though I'm not sure that anyone caught up in a war wins). It's not specifically discussed in this book, but the implications are there for Peter (the sons) generation and how they might come to view themselves.