By Erich Hackl
Translated from the German
By Edna McCown
Fromm International. 135 pp. $16.95
WHEN M.I. Finley remarked that history is not an instinctive art form, he implied that what is instinctive, and basic to our natures, are impulses that sabotage the historian's craft: our tendency to repress, and our further tendency to mythologize. We prefer our fantasies and our parables, with their happy, or at least tidy, endings to the slovenly and transient facts. To misquote Frost, something there is that does not love the truth. We are that something.
Toward the end of this troubling, touching little book, Farewell Sidonia, by Austrian writer Erich Hackl, the narrator drops his pretense of disengagement: "At this point the chronicler can no longer hide behind facts and conjectures. This is the point at which he wishes to scream in helpless rage." This personal interjection disrupts the fluid tone of the story, but it also exposes the mysterious relation between the narrator, or chronicler as he calls himself, and the demands of a narrative that treats history like fiction. How can a chronicler hide behind facts when he lives by facts? What does it mean for an objective observer to work through the subjective misery of another person's life?
Hackl's bleak dilemma hangs over a text that is minimal to the point of being stenographic. Call it the Anne Frank motif: A young child, in this case an orphaned gypsy girl, is raised by a kindly family in a country occupied by the Nazis. She is endearing, vivacious; she seems to be almost a small incarnation of vitality itself. And by the poisonous logic of fascism, what embodies life must be purified in death: Sidonia is taken from her parents, shipped to Auschwitz, and swallowed up in darkness with millions of others.
The story of innocence drowned in blood is so familiar that the chronicler can scarcely resist telling it as a kind of grotesque fairy tale. Sidonia is a foundling, a dark-skinned baby abandoned on the steps of a hospital with a note that informs her discoverers: "I need parents." She finds them, in the person of Hans and Josepha, working-class Austrian socialists of almost tiresome decency, who manage to raise Sidonia and their other children in the chaos of pre-war central Europe, amid workers' revolts, economic deprivations and the coming of the Beast.
The superficial simplicity of the story lies in its opposition of good and evil, but Sidonia's elegant parable is perverted from the start by the small, unaccountable details that history demands. Sidonia is lovely but bow-legged. She has a sunny personality, but the chronicler suggests she may be mildly retarded. When a wealthy neighbor takes her in a carriage to be christened, it's only because her atheist parents think the bourgeois ritual may ensure Sidonia's safety. And in real fairy tales, which tell us the right kind of lies, the lost child's reunion with her mother is a happy one. When Sidonia's real mother is finally located, their reunion is not.
Hackl's chronicler, despite his attempts to remake the story as a formulaic tragedy, can't quite get the facts to conform, which is why by the end he's lapsing into emotional outbursts. Sidonia is surrounded by the deepest evil, but she is destroyed by mere pettiness. The town where she was originally abandoned has been forced, by the state poverty laws, to continue to pay for her relief. She is ordered returned to her gypsy family, not by genocidal racists, but by administrators who think they will be reimbursed for lost revenues. The reader and the tale's teller are left to waver between the unbearable banality of evil and the unbelievable conventions of the good. We try to get our fables in order, and the facts rise up and overturn it: Our instincts are beaten down by our commitment to the historical record. But if we go groping for the truth among the clutter of the facts, our sense of fable circles back on us. We find ourselves lapsing into our comforting, conventional stories.
Stories whose ends unravel as we listen. In the final chapter of this book, the chronicler, making one last attempt at a moral re-casts the fable of Sidonia in the most mythic terms: "Let us imagine another place, on a river of clear mountain water, occupied by so-called little people . . . And let us further assume that a great historical period arrives . . ." Into the midst of these little people comes a girl with "dark skin she can not wash off." She is given a home by a kindly couple. Next the "great historical period," with its violence and upheavals, divides the villagers into "those who howl with the wolves and those who say nothing." When the time comes for the little village to hand over the girl to the evil forces of the surrounding world, suddenly the previously silent villagers raise their voices in outrage. "and the miracle (let us call it that) occurs: the child remains in the couple's care and survives the great historical period, which collapses two years later."
"But the story cannot be permitted to end in this way," sighs the chronicler. Or can it?
As we come to the end of this century, with so much suffering stretched out in the ruined twilight behind us, the paradox of memory becomes more haunting, more vicious. Our old enemies, though defeated, have heaped the victims to the sky, too many to name. We keep going forward, through the narrow passes, but we can only carry so much, and our voices set off avalanches. The road back is buried under uncounted fragments, documents, rubbish. And we press on, telling stories about the world we left behind, fables that might be true, but with no real way to account for how much we lost, or what escaped, or who.
Richard Ryan is the editor of Hand & Eye literary magazine. He writes on politics and culture for numerous publications.