In episode 9, I discuss Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey, who will be appearing at the Nelson Arts Festival on October 22 as part of the Pukapuka Talks writers programme that I curate.
Remote Sympathy was shortlisted for the 2022 DUBLIN Literary Award, longlisted for the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction and was a finalist in the 2021 Ockham NZ Book Award for Fiction.
In the story, Frau Greta Hahn discovers moving away from their lovely apartment in Munich isn’t nearly as wrenching an experience for her as she had feared.
Their new home is even lovelier than the one they left behind, and best of all – right on their doorstep – are some of the finest craftsmen from all over Europe. Frau Hahn and the other officers’ wives living in this small community are encouraged to order anything they desire, whether that be new curtains made from the finest French fabrics, or furniture designed to the most exacting specifications.
In the beginning, life in Buchenwald would appear to be idyllic. Yet lying just beyond the forest that surrounds them – so close and yet so remote – is the looming presence of a so-called work camp.
Of course the reason for me mentioning this book here on Deathwalker’s Guide to Life is that it not only explores death denial on the horrific, catastrophic scale that was the Holocaust, but also at a very personal, individual level.
I don’t want to mention any major spoilers, but let’s just say that Greta’s husband, SS officer Dietrich Hahn, is not exactly honest with her about the illness that ails her. As the administrator of the work camp, he calls in one of his prisoners, Dr Lenard Weber, to treat her. So the story also explores the power of belief in healing. It also contrasts the devasting contradiction in Dietrich’s love, care and concern for his wife, with his wilful indifference when it comes to the inmates. There is nothing humane about his administration. As Dr Weber so chillingly reports: "At Buchenwald we don’t have any sick. You’re either healthy or you go to the crematorium."
The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Dr Weber, in letters he writes to his daughter, the private reflections of 1,000 citizens of Weimer, the imaginary diary of Greta, and from an interview with her husband nine years after the war, presumably in preparation for a war trial.
Described as a tour de force about the evils of obliviousness, Remote Sympathy compels the reader to question our continuing and wilful ability to look the other way in a world that is once more in thrall to the idea that everything – even facts, truth, and morals – is relative.
The story dives deep into the way each character’s trauma influences their beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. Chidgey then begins to show how their denial begins to unravel.
If you're interested in finding about more from the author herself, she will be appearing at the Nelson Arts Festival on Saturday October 22, in conversation with Elizabeth Knox about both this book and her upcoming novel, The Axeman’s Carnival, which is the story of Marnie and her husband Frank, although Tama the magpie is the star of this story. Knox describes it as flat-out brilliant, a compulsive read about the liberating and alienating madness of fame.
They may seem like very different titles but, in both books, Chidgey says she’s interested in chipping away the façade of domesticity to expose darker places. In both stories, the savage and the domestic exist side by side – and overlap. She explores the consequences of placing a character in a strange and potentially dangerous environment – Lenard in the Hahns’ house, and Tama in the house ruled by Rob. Both Lenard and Tama act as witnesses to the events of those places.
Tama is not only part trickster, part surrogate child, and part witness, but he’s also a tweeter – that is, the digital kind. I’ve already begun building my relationship with him online. (On a recent Aussie trip, I met one of Tama's cousins in a stand-off with Kevin Kookaburra, which is pictured above!)