Sorting through Berlin’s skeletons — real and imagined
‘The human social brain wasn’t designed to understand the human social terror,’’ asserts the narrator of Ida Hattemer-Higgins’s emphatically monomaniacal fiction debut. “And the more it tries, the more it dies.’’
While the full panoply of mankind’s social outrages surges between the lines of “The History of History,’’ set primarily in post-2001 Berlin, the particular horrors that consume its 25-year-old protagonist, Margaret Taub, are the human spoils of the Third Reich. And in her dogged, gumshoe-like efforts to crack open the motivations of Hitler’s minions and victims alike, Margaret effectively sets herself on a path toward spiritual suicide.
The chosen method of Margaret’s dissolution is the poison of too-much-information: She has an encyclopedic command of terrible events, and the knowledge has her spinning into madness. An American working as a tour guide in Berlin, where she moved upon the death of her mentally ill, German-born father, she shuttles visitors around the city and nearby concentration camps. Margaret knows all the harrowing camp stories, and she relays them to her captive audience in manipulatively edited detail.
It will come as little surprise to any reader that Hattemer-Higgins has herself clocked many hours as a walking-tour guide of Berlin, whose buildings become personified in her protagonist’s uncorked imagination as living, breathing human entities, complete with tattoos and acne. Like Margaret, Hattemer-Higgins flaunts her intimacy with a city and its past like a woman possessed, rifling through a warehouse of historical detritus in the form of letters, police logs, biographical entries, ghost stories, allegorical flights of fancy, ghoulish film back stories, quotations from “Mein Kampf’’ and diary entries that channel the youthful romantic ardor of Anne Frank.
Margaret begins to sort through this careering rush of documentation shortly after wakening one September 2002 morning in the middle of Berlin’s neighboring Grunewald forest, mired in dirt and an amnesiac stupor. She returns to work with her trove of Holocaust minutiae intact, albeit with several months of personal history lifted from her memory bank. In between visits to an elderly German gynecologist with a mysterious vested interest in her welfare, Margaret attempts to retrieve the thread of those lost months and, in doing so, becomes fixated on the tragic plights of women from Berlin’s wartime past. Traversing from the graves of Jewish families to the door of Hitler’s surviving bodyguard, she becomes a stalker of the dead, “a cannibal licking the bones of the past clean of flesh.’’
Chief among the skeletons she scavenges are those of Joseph Goebbels’s wife, Magda, who infamously poisoned herself and her children in Hitler’s bunker during the waning days of the war, and Regina Strauss, a Jewish mother who abetted her husband in a family suicide (by gassing, ironically enough) rather than surrender to a future of unknown cruelties in the camps. As she endeavors to comprehend why these mothers felt compelled to kill their children rather than send them away to a safer haven, Margaret steps into a Jungian minefield, developing a guilt-ridden sense of identification with the dead.
Hattemer-Higgins’s rangy assemblage of narrative voices is virtuosic, even if it smacks at times of a novice’s eagerness to use everything in her toolbox. She overplays the bird symbolism and undersells ironic detachment; as Margaret’s investigation takes on a mountingly hectoring tone, one can’t quite decide if the author is to be admired or resented for allowing her truth-seeker the sin of sanctimony. Whenever the protagonist and the mysterious doctor are locked in a spiky dialectical give-and-take, however, “The History of History’’ offers persuasive evidence of an erudite and fiercely self-examining writer.
Jan Stuart, a critic-at-large and author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece,’’ can be reached at email@example.com.