Friday, June 22, 2012

City of Women is austere, sexy, and strangely uplifting

City of Women by David R. Gillham, an Amy Einhorn Book, published by  Penguin Group (USA).

What is it about Berlin 1943 that we keep revisiting this time of impending doom, as the once indomitable Third Reich began to crack up? Hasn't this era and its aftermath been explored ad nauseum in fiction and films like "The Berlin Stories"/Cabaret, “The Good German,” "The Piano," "Sarah's Key," "The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas," Erich Maria Remarque’s unforgettable play Full Circle, and of course Gunter Grass's "The Tin Drum.?"

Then I read City of Women by David R. Gillham (August, Penguin Group), whose heroine is someone I haven't met before. Sigrid Schroeder is not decadent, burnt out or a Nazi zealot who sees the light. She's a regular "haus frau,"except that she's not.  She has a job and no children, which separates her from her mother-in-law's generation. That woman continually scrubs, while self-righteously upholding the values of the Reich. She also expresses nonstop contempt for Sigrid. Yet the two women live together in her shabby flat.

What she suspects, and what we learn, is that Sigrid is an independent thinker in a time, where conformity keeps you alive. She is also alone in her marriage. Her husband has withdrawn from sexual and emotional intimacy. Though they share the same bed, her life a narrow one. She takes what comfort she can in routine; coexistence with him, until he's called up, and her job, as a stenographer in the patent office.

Yet this circumscribed life becomes claustrophobic, when German propaganda conflicts with the defeat of Stalingrad. As her husband leaves and the “Tommies” bomb every night, she's finds herself under scrutiny for her loyalty to the Reich. Too intelligent to openly voice her doubts, she retreats into her inner life. Her only desire is to collect her salary, deal with her mother-in-law’s incessant carping and put-downs, and enjoy time with her friend from work.

Sigrid finds a particular solace in the movies. What was interesting was that movies themselves, which were all propaganda, were no escape. She sought emotional space in the dark to exist as herself. In CITY OF WOMEN, Sigrid becomes extraordinary, because an authentic life finds her in this place. She may be hiding out, but at the movie theater truth collides with official unreality.

Behind the Heil Hitlers and the propaganda films and the many required sacrifices of civilians, is the uneasy feeling that the war is not being won. Behind the daily flow of law and order, the Gestapo hunt Jews. This enemy of the Reich is depicted as swollen frogs or greedy creatures with huge noses. Berliners have to square these images with the distraught men, women and children evacuated from their homes, beaten and murdered in the streets, who disappear en mass from the train station. They also cope with the stultifying  reality that a dropped word not in accordance with the official line, could be reported.

That meant arrest, beatings and torture in the underground cells of the Gestapo, or deportment to death. Then there's the loss of property and status not limited to individual "criminals, but whole families. War Widows and men serving were not exempt from punishment. So most people either espouse the cause or, like Sigrid, hide in themselves.

With men at the front, Berlin became a city of women. Yet in her theater, Sigrid finds one of those rare men, unable to serve or deserters. She carries a fish knife, in case her usual refusals are not sufficient. But she finds herself intrigued by this handsome man in his good camel’s hair coat, with his deep scratchy voice, and an animal magnetism that moves her. Despite her keen awareness of risk, there's something primal about this man she can’t refuse. And there's the intriguing fact he stands out, doesn’t even try to disappear.

When this man’s "warmth calls to her flesh," you're happy for her. Sigrid is not so young, probably mid 30’s, and not easy in any sense of the word.Yet in City of Women, she’s hot for this man in this theater, where she's anonymous. The passion makes her alive and she lives for it. City of Women is a very sexy novel, without being tawdry. The author has created a character you cheer, as she enjoys pleasure. The passion is not gratuitous but intrinsic to the story. Once it initiates her into life, she's less afraid.  

Sigrid is in the same theater, thinking it's her lover, when the 19-year old “duty girl” who looks after her neighbor's kids, sits next to her. The girl asks Sigrid to cover for her with the police. Sigrid does so, unsure why she's doing it. She also finds herself doing errands for Egon, not questioning the purpose. When the girl, Erica, is in danger of losing her job, Sigrid wants to protect her.

Then Erica makes off with clothes Sigrid had donated. She tracks her to a house, where Jews are in hiding. Sigrid's at a crossroads. Her decision takes her into an underground world, where Jews are saved in an entangled network of safe houses and operatives.

Sigrid's resourcefulness grows with her learning curve. She continues her passionate affair but doesn't disclose her private cause. Sigrid's habit of discretion is akin to her personal code of ethics. Reminescent of LeCarre, she's a kind of female Smiley, decent in her deception. Though aware of the contradictions of her position and the inherent hypocrisies, she soldiers on.

This is a heroine who compromises herself because she can't do otherwise. Whether it's her ethical code or her "good heart," or naivety, her motivation is left untidy. Like in Remarque, the gray of reality proves more arbitrary than the black and white of personal ethics. Emotionally, Sigrid has to almost "hollow" herself out, to fulfill her mission.

That she does so isn't about heroism but independence less of the mind than the soul.  And her reward, when finally love becomes a separate destiny, is the exercise of freedom. I found City of Women austere, sexy, and strangely uplifting.