Wednesday, 28 May 2008

The Manuscript

The Manuscript, by Eva Zeller, translated from the German by Nadia Lawrence, is an exquisite and profound novella of war and love. Based on true events, it tells the stories of Bea, whose father fought for Nazi Germany and Jacob, a German Jew, who meet in late middle-age and instantly form a deep attachment. Both were orphaned during the Second World War, yet neither has ever spoken to anyone of the true circumstances of their parents' demise.

Bea has inherited a large house from her grandparents, in which she discovers, in the attic, a sealed envelope containing a manuscript written by a woman who knew her mother and who witnessed her death. Until reading this account, Bea has never known or understood her mother's fate.

In The Manuscript, the softest, most graceful writing envelopes the telling of the (nearly) present-day love story like a downy embrace, yet within lies the manuscript's matter-of-fact account of the most unimaginable cruelty and suffering experienced by its author, by Bea's mother and by thousands of other German women who were captured by the Russians in February 1945 and deported to a labour camp in Siberia. Routinely starved, beaten, raped and shot, the women are misused by their captors in retribution for the Siege of Leningrad and other horrors perpetrated upon the Russian people by the German army.

Bea and Jacob gradually develop a kind of half-relationship, in which, though deeply fond of, and increasingly dependent on, each other, neither can find the words to recount their past, and so an impossible silence lies at the heart of their affair. Only during an impulsive trip to Russia one Christmas do they finally find their own individual ways to reach each other through their personal histories - to speak, at last, the unspeakable.

This book - purchased on a recent trawl of Colchester's charity shops - was such an unexpected joy. Read in one sitting, has affected me deeply and, moreover, has reminded me of the importance, from time to time, of blocking out the ceaseless noise and clamour of reviews, book-blogs, reading group choices, star ratings, long-lists, short-lists, prize winners and all the rest and instead . . . simply . . . to . . . see a book, . . . pick it up . . . and read it. Simple. And effective.

Which is not to say that I wouldn't be delighted to hear from anyone else who has read this little gem!


C. B. James said...

I have not read it, but it sounds wonderful. I'll look for it.

Juliet said...

Hi c.b. - welcome to Musings. I've just been over to have a look at your blog and find that I've landed on it several before, though I can't remember how I discovered it!

monix said...

I think I'd like to read this, too. I made a resolution this week to go back to reading for my own interest and pleasure. Well done, J, for sharing your views on a book that isn't on anyone's promotional list.

60 Going On 16 said...

Haven't read it Juliet but I absolutely concur with the joy of finding unexpected gems in charity shops, the local library, or in what has now become an endangered species, a secondhand bookshop. And we need to give ourselves periodic reminders of what it is we love about reading.

I very rarely buy new books these days and, as a result, I've been taken on literary journeys that I might otherwise not have made. And, to be honest, I don't enjoy reading a book - however desperate I am to get my hands on it - when I can barely move for the assembled ranks of reviewers, professional and amateur, all jostling for a place in the sun.

Reading someone's personal thoughts on a book, especially long after the publication date, is always going to be much more satisfying than reading something cobbled together from the book's cover, the publicity handout and other people's reviews.

PS Picked up some absolute corkers today!

Juliet said...

Hi M and D - I have suddenly found myself becoming enormously, overwhelmingly, wearied by the over-exposure some books are receiving in the blogosphere and the media in general at the moment. It's made me determined NOT to read them! Perverse, I know. But it's all brought me out in the kind of rash I develop when I see a Richard and Judy sticker slapped on a book (which would be bad enough, but now said 'stickers' are actually printed on to the covers, defacing some very well designed covers - I wonder what the designers have to say about this!) So expect some bookish backwaters on Musings, rather than any 'ooh, ooh, me too' stuff (once I've got some gripes about a recent read out of the way, that is).

Nithin said...

I read this book last week and loved it.

I have to agree with you about the "noise" of reviews that you talked about. That is one of the reasons why I never read reviews before I read the book. But after I've finished the book, it's good to read other people's opinions about it.

PS. My review of this book is here.

Juliet said...

Hi Nithin - thanks for stopping by and for the link to your review. Sometimes it's very difficult to avoid reading reviews (and often, of course, reading a review is what makes me read a book in the first place). But when I pick up a book like this, apropos of nothing, I certainly don't seek out other people's opinions before I have come to my own conclusions. It looks as though your conclusion was pretty much like mine - although I think I'd have given it at least 8/10 if forced to apply a star-rating.