Two of the biggest powers that books can have are to make us think outside our usual periphery or be a spring board to discovering more about subjects we think we know. Some books can do both, they are a rarity though. Magda, the debut novel from Meike Ziervogel, is one such book which gave me both a different outlook on something I thought I had made my mind up about and left me desperate to find out more when challenged. It is the sort of book where I simply want to write ‘you have to read this book’ and leave it at that so you all do, yet it is also one that is designed to be talked about and the questions it raises be discussed.
I have to say I wasn’t sure what to expect from Magda before I read it. I was a little trepidatious, as I would imagine other readers may be, because I knew it was about Magda Goebbels and knowing of her relationship with the Nazi’s, Hitler and, of course, because of what she did to her children.
All these facts flashed through my head, but one thing that I believe strongly is that some books should confront us and make us face the darker aspects of life. After all, if we brush things under the carpet eternally how can we deal with things, change things and most importantly not let certain events repeat in the future. It is questions like that which a book like Magda asks; in this case can we understand a woman who is depicted as the ultimate monster, a Nazi and a child killer?
The first issue I think a book like Magda brings up the fact that there is a lot of stigma, for obvious reasons, towards anything that tries to humanise or explain someone who was a Nazi. There is that worry of ‘what will people think of me if I empathise with a character like that?’ Yet we never think about that when we enter the realms of a crime novel do we? I have read many a novel where I follow a psychopath as they kill at will before, hopefully, they caught. I have enjoyed them but this has never made me question if I am a psychopath. Because the character is completely fictional it is ok, if the character is real and known as a villain then it is a whole different matter. When I discussed Magda with Meike one of the things she said she would worry about having written it was that people might think her a Nazi, just as she did when she wrote of her Grandfather’s in the Guardian. That is how potent and raw the subject still is.
Whilst I don’t think a reader will ever empathise with Magda, I myself didn’t, I do think that you will begin to possibly understand why she might have become the person she did, especially when you come to the ‘speculative’ section which I thought was a brilliant piece of writing in terms of Magda’s possible psychology. There is a question mark as to Magda’s motives behind joining the Nazi’s but some people joined them because they thought it would end the world problems as they saw them. I don’t agree with what they thought, and what they did it was horrific, yet I found Meike’s novella made me look at her and the Nazi movement from a very different aspect and I admired the bravery Meike has in trying to explain Magda’s story in as unbiased a way as possible. She is never quite a monster nor simply a woman doing what she thought was right, we get something in the middle. Meike fictionally tries to look at the reasoning behind her actions and creates a complex woman who was the product of her emotional and sometimes very difficult past and also the political climate of her country and generation.
Now I must talk about the prose, I do feel for Meike because before anyone (myself included) discusses the prose, characterisations etc invariably they have to defend the book for its subject matter, which isn’t just about the Nazi’s. Anyway, I loved the style in which Meike has written Magda. At 113 pages we don’t get her life story in full, or indeed in chronological order, we get snapshots of Magda’s life, the young girl in the convent, the background behind that, her first marriage and her rise in society leading to meeting Hitler and the events after that.
This is where Meike throws in another masterstroke. Magda is told through three different narratives, interestingly (I have just noticed now) none are from the point of view of Magda herself. We have Magda’s mother, Augusta, who tells of her childhood and how she first came into contact with the Nazi movement and who clearly had a very difficult relationship with her daughter. Plus Magda’s eldest daughter, Helga, who describes the time in the bunker in diary form – reminding me of Anne Frank and then making me think how these two girls found themselves in the most horrendous situations through no fault of their own, that really made me think and was incredibly emotional to read. These narratives highlight Meike’s other main theme in the book, mother and daughter relationships. For the rest of the book we have an omnipresent narrator so we never look at the world quite through Magda’s eyes which I found very interesting, it was as if Meike did need a certain amount of distance from her.
One of the loveliest moments of my life was when Magda came to me and said she wanted to train for domestic service rather than continue studying. I’d had my doubts, you see, that she’d ever be a respectable person, what with her head having been turned, twisted really, round and round and round like in a vice, so that it was perched there on her long thin neck, looking down on everybody, especially her own flesh and blood, her own mother. With those cold… those ice-cold eyes. But he put her back on the straight and narrow, didn’t he?
After initially reading Magda I was hugely impressed by it and thought it a very brave and often uncomfortable tale but one which needs to be so. Since then the book has lingered with me and my admiration of what Meike has done has grown and grown. It has made me ask myself a lot of questions about perceptions and how we look at and deal with history. It has also seen me go off and read other books, such as Laurent Binet’s HHhH (review coming soon), and documentaries and films, such as Downfall, which look at these horrendous events yet with more impartiality. A book which does that is one we should all be reading, so find a copy. It has been one of my reading experiences of the year.
If you would like to hear Meike Ziervogel in discussion with me about Magda then do head here. It is a fascinating discussion even if I say so myself – left me with even more to think about!