Winner of the 2018 Hans Fallada Prize

Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire

First I spoke to the publisher and the book designers, then I spoke to the author and the translator. With an appreciation of the hard work and emotional energy that went into producing the first book from the new V&Q imprint, I was feeling a little guilty that I would be spending 3 hours max with this slim novel of only 140 pages. Easily read in an evening, I thought. Except it wasn’t, for at times I found the portrait of the protagonist’s increasing alienation from her grandmother so frustrating, and at others so moving, that frequent pauses were necessary.

Hoffmann’s piece is marketed as autofiction. The first-person narrator is the young Sandra herself; Paula is her grandmother, a woman with a past that she has effectively buried. Which would be fine if there weren’t any after-effects. The skin-colour of her illegitimate daughter is darker than that of her contemporaries in the Catholic Swabian village, and so too is that of her granddaughter. This leads to bullying, name-calling, and shame. As the child Sandra becomes more aware, she persistently questions her grandmother about her past. To no avail. Paula’s silence is as solid and as impenetrable as a sound-proofed brick wall .

The young Sandra turns to photograph albums, scouring each picture for clues as to the identity of her grandfather. She sees a different Paula in these photographs, one who smiles and is charmed and delighted by the gift of a pair of white gloves. Her grand-daughter knows that Paula was engaged, but lost her fiancé in the war. But which of the photographed beaus was the fiancé is unclear. What came after the war is positively murky: Paula lost a son before her daughter was born. Did these children have the same father? In which case there was a well-hidden lengthy relationship, and there must have been a conspiracy of silence in Paula’s family, because her sister or her parents must have been in the know. If they were, and they didn’t let onto Paula’s daughter, what chance does her grand-daughter have of breaking through? The conjecture about the children sharing the same father is, by the way, all mine. The young Sandra doesn’t piece “the evidence” together in the same way, so who can say which version is correct? There is no absolute truth. As Hoffmann said during the V&Q launch event (and I paraphrase) “Photographs provide only a snapshot of a moment. There is no context. So the story I tell is my truth, my reality. This is how I saw it.”

While Paula’s secret remains hidden, the novel reveals many intimate and inter-generational psychological truths: Paula’s drowning of her sorrows, the reaction of her daughter against her mother’s poverty and alcoholic sloppiness, always dressing smartly in French styles. When Paula abstains from alcohol, she reverts to devout Catholicism, never to be parted from her rosary beads. Guilt is to be assuaged through constant prayer. It is this older Paula, the one with a gammy leg, living with her daughter and husband, that her granddaughter describes. She loves her during her early years; she is the one she snuggles up to while watching television, the one who protects her against her bad dreams. With the teenage years comes resentment of her grandmother’s overbearing presence, her refusal to grant her her own space.

Yes, there is something obsessive and claustrophobic about Paula’s watchfulness, her rifling through both her daughter’s and granddaughter’s cupboards and drawers, her refusal to knock before entering a room, her need to stand and watch. None of this is inflicted on the males in the household. Which begs the question. What exactly is the woman who hides everything looking for? What is she seeking to protect her girls from? You can understand teenage Sandra moving from love to aversion to callous rejection …

… even as you feel Paula’s pain.

Written with hindsight some year’s later, so too can Sandra.

I see my grandmother’s sad, sunken face with its delicate bird-feather features, and on it her unhappiness that the only person in the house to whom she was a little close for a happy period of 10 years, or even longer, wants nothing more to do with her. Her sadness is oppressive and gets more oppressive every year because I close myself to her more with every year.

I was glad at this belated understanding of Paula by a more mature Sandra because if you think about her experiences (single mother, late 1940s in traditional Catholic territory, consigned to perpetual loneliness), she does get under your skin. A person in her own right, irredeemably damaged by her post-WWII experiences, whatever they were. Difficult to live with certainly, but not deserving of being cast aside and or even overwritten in another language. To avoid this, Katy Derbyshire sensitively chose, in some passages, to maintain Paula’s Swabian dialect, quoting it prior to translating it, and so preserved the authentic voice of a woman who said so little.

Further reviews of Paula at Heavenali and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

This post is part of the V&Q Launch Blog Tour.