Sunday 4 September 2016

from Rewind: a reinvention of my mother

Magda at the hospital in Altenburg, after recovery

It may be that in the moments, minutes and hours of extreme suffering all one’s energy and attention is devoted to survival not to what might happen after the suffering stopped. It would have taken enormous will and concentration on Magda’s part, just to keep going. That would be followed by exhaustion, then more work and suffering. Little by little the relief provided by thoughts of the past, of others, of those loved, of other people’s stories or songs or jokes, fades away. Then comes the sick bay, the hovering between life and death in a state of starved semi-consciousness.  Then the slide towards death.

Then everyone leaves. You are starving. The dying around you continue to die.


The Americans arrive.  There is the sensation of being lifted up and examined, of being carried by truck to a hospital, of being lowered into a clean bed -  a proper bed! - then more examinations, the examinations more careful, more tender, the voices quieter, the light sweeter, the sight of ever more healthy bodies moving around a ward, the dawning to consciousness of spring, to breeze and warmth and scent. There is food, a carefully gradated increase in diet, the return of taste and smell beyond filthy rotting flesh. The touch and feel of knife and fork and spoon and plate. The relative softness of cloth, the sheer cleanliness, followed by the slow rediscovery of the body as pleasure, the rediscovery of the propriety of one’s own self. Look! Dark hair, an emaciated face beginning to fill out, a body regaining its shape, the sense of being a woman in a world of women and men, not a walking corpse. There are unfamiliar voices, a strange language, a dramatic change in the manners of other people entailing the recovery and repossession of a social hierarchy that comradeship in suffering has modified so the relationship between professor and street-cleaner is never quite the same again.

After the sudden switching off of the suffering machine there is the sheer numbness, the haze of recovery, that suspension of time between events when you know next to nothing of one moment’s relationship to another, when it’s all present tense, a succession of present tenses without context. Then there is George’s proposal of marriage  the arrival of dresses from America.

I am inventing her again, but only to a degree. What I imagine here is not specific to her, it is only a guess, possibly a wrong one, about the process of recovery in general, albeit in a specific place, in Altenburg, Mid-Saxony, spring 1945. It is an invention I can only justify by claiming that any knowledge is partly invention, that memory is mostly invention, and that knowledge of another is invention in the highest degree. Then I must go on to claim that invention can be a form of tenderness. We address our human inventions with the same solicitude with which we address any other of our own inventions. We even invent ourselves though with far less security. We keep inventing and inventing, growing tired of our inventions. We should reinvent ourselves occasionally, we think, sometimes even drastically. But in doing so we destroy other people’s inventions of us. We have to invent everything all over again and so do they. That is a serious responsibility.

I am interested in her so I go on inventing her, inventing a truth I can believe in about her. I invent nothing factual. I don’t make it up, but the person at the core of it all still has to be constructed and understood in terms of invention.

The trick is to invent the truth.