By Ruth Kluger
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 18, 2011; 9:03 PM
Berlin, the least storied of the great European capitals, not much more than an oversize village as late as the 18th century, is today one of the most vibrant cities on the continent, though it has a ferocious 20th-century past: Nazi headquarters, Allied aerial bombardment, destruction by the Russians at the end of World War II and its walled-in existence during the Cold War.
Although Ida Hattemer-Higgins's "The History of History" is a novel, it's also a virtual guide to the city, as its subtitle suggests. The protagonist, Margaret Taub, is an American history student at the Free University, working part time as a guide for English-speaking tourists. The painstaking detail of her narrative map of Berlin and the plausible, often amusing reactions of her customers to her explanations of the sites form the realistic side of the novel. The other side is a fantasy about the merging of past and present, beginning with Margaret's partial amnesia when she wakes one morning in a forest and has forgotten what happened to her in the past few months.
Amnesia is such an easy trick to get a story rolling that we have a right to expect an extraordinary tale to warrant it. At first, the novel's many original twists seem an arbitrary jumble, but by and by some coherence emerges. There are electrifying scenes, often confrontational, in which the author succeeds in melding a sensitive outsider's subjective experience of the city with its documented history. But other scenes leave an impression of strained improbability. We're left wondering about the validity, let alone the depth, of the ideas that are meant to make these disparate moments coalesce.
Here are some of the startling things that happen to our heroine:
* Margaret, an ardent reader of Nazi history, comes to identify with Magda Goebbels, the wife of Hitler's propaganda minister, who poisoned her young children in the notorious "Fuehrerbunker," where the Goebbels family, together with Hitler and an assortment of high-ranking thugs, were holed up until they committed suicide. Frau Goebbels takes on the shape of a menacing bird and stalks Margaret.
* Margaret plays a game of cards with the ghost of a Jewish woman who also killed her children. Listening to the woman's story, Margaret decides to fall in love with her.
* Margaret is summoned by a blind doctor who inserts a speculum into her body while showing her a blurry film that is meant to reveal the fullness of life.
* Margaret suffers from the illusion that the city's buildings have turned into living flesh.
All this (and more) is certainly ponderous with significance, but the reader has to decide whether it isn't also over the top. Moreover, do the fireworks of this remarkable style fizzle out in moral truisms or are they revelatory? Consider this typically opaque passage: "A cephalopod builds its multichambered shell according to the nacreous laws of its species, and so too, this flickering figure of Magda Goebbels, without hardly meaning to, vanished inside layers of narrative artifice . . . all emanations from her personality which built rightness and naturalism, in layer upon layer, for things that were beyond right or nature."
In the end, the enigma of Margaret's initial amnesia is lifted, and communist Berlin comes into play as part of her suppressed memories. Family secrets and the blind doctor's true identity are revealed. Margaret's and Germany's ghosts belong to one another. The author explains, "It is remarkably easy to conflate one kind of guilt with another. Guilt is a quicksilver that loves its brothers; it flows naturally according to its own code of gravity, eager to rejoin its own, and in the final reservoir, there are no distinctions." Yet isn't it a dubious assumption that the greater evil should get subsumed and must serve to explain the lesser one? Does history in the end become a mere stage prop for a private story? A Kafkaesque irrationality pervades the best passages of this novel with images of angst and anxiety. But there is also a "Wizard of Oz" quality in the many wonders Margaret encounters that doesn't go well with the gravity of genocide.
This is not a major work, but it's an ambitious first novel, written with a great deal of intelligence, skill and a narrative energy that raises hopes for more and better to come.
Kluger is a retired professor of literature and the author of "Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered."
THE HISTORY OF HISTORY
A Novel of Berlin
By Ida Hattemer-Higgins
Knopf. 319 pp. $25.95