There are probably scads and scads of books like 13. I’ve seen them in libraries and used book stores. They are books that take on one topic and mine it for endless anecdotes and historical curios, but they don’t claim that by looking through the prism of the topic at hand, a reader can discern the entire arc of human history. The books are about what they are about, and all you need to do as a reader is sit back and be entertained and informed. John McPhee, who is very good at this sort of thing, once wrote a book entirely about Oranges, for example. Nathaniel Lachenmeyer does this sort of thing well, too. His book is an impeccably researched look at an old superstition. With every turn of the page the reader is presented with another odd relic that Lachenmeyer has dug up for our perusal: the existence of popular superstition-defying “13 clubs” at the beginning of the 20th century, for example. And onward the book moves through Friday the 13th, the missing 13th floor, and all the rest. Taken as a whole, the book is a nifty piece of well-researched reportage bringing to light the many murky progenitors of this now commonplace superstition.
The German Girl (in Spanish, translated by Nick Caistor), is a novel with a purpose: To expose the atrocity of the S.S. St. Louis, whose 1939 voyage from Hamburg to Cuba exemplifies the fatal consequences of closed borders and failed humanity, of hope gone horrendously wrong. Armando Lucas Correa, raised in Cuba before emigrating to the United States, writes with a political agenda as well — to out Cuba not only for denying sanctuary to most of the St. Louis’s ill-fated passengers, but also for erasing the crime from Cuba’s history books. Cuba is not the only country with a selective memory. The United States, too, played a key role in the horrors that transpired, and was very late in coming to a public admission of guilt.
Correa is a journalist. Among other professional activities, he is editor-in-chief of People en Espanõl. His first book, En Busca de Emma (In Search of Emma: Two Fathers, One Daughter and the Dream of a Family) is a memoir about the arduous and emotionally fraught journey of starting a family with his male partner. The German Girl is his debut novel.
The novel alternates chapters between two narrators. The first is Hannah Rosenthal, a Jewish girl who is 12 in 1939, having lived a bourgeois existence in Berlin before the Nazis’ rise to power. Hannah experiences the world through smell. Two women on the S-Bahn give “off waves of sweat mixed with rose essence and tobacco.” Berlin after the November pogrom (Kristallnacht) — “a stench of broken pipes, sewage, and smoke.” Hannah’s childhood nanny, recalled through “the fragrance of her lemon-bergamot-cedarwood cologne mingled with the smell of sweat and spices.” Hannah also experiences the world through her beloved friend Leo Martin. Together they travel Berlin, hiding from the “Ogres” — her parlance for Nazis — and sharing a passion for adventure.
The second narrator is Anna Rosen, an American girl living in 2014. She and her bedridden, widowed mother are enshadowed by 9/11. They live a sober existence in New York. Hanna’s sections are written in the past tense, Anna’s in the present.
The parallels between the girls are many, sometimes tipping their similarities toward the contrived. Both have suffering mothers with whom they appear to have a strained emotional connection. Both idolize their absent fathers, each missing for different reasons. Both are only children. Both have a male friend their own age, though Hannah is much closer to Leo than Anna with Diego.
Hannah lives with her parents: an anxious, self-centered opera singer mother named Alma Strauss Rosenthal (faint homage to Alma Mahler, perhaps?) and her father, Max Rosenthal, an esteemed university professor. As Berlin becomes increasingly dangerous, Hannah’s family — desperate to leave — secures passage on the St. Louis. Leo’s widowed father, too, manages to book passage for himself and his son. The voyage appears to bring escape and deliverance, but instead, it is their terrible misfortune to have set sail on a doomed ship.
At the end of the book, Correa provides these facts — on May 13, 1939, the St. Louis sailed for Cuba from Hamburg with 900 passengers, the majority German Jewish refugees. It docked two days later in Cherbourg to pick up 37 additional Jewish passengers. All refugees had landing permits from the Cuban Department of Immigration, as well as U.S. entry visas. Cuba was intended as a transit point; passengers were to await emigration to the United States. A week before departure, Cuban President Federico Laredo Brú invalidated the landing permits.
The St. Louis arrived in Havana early morning May 27. Only four Cubans, two non-Jewish Spaniards, and 22 refugees were ultimately permitted to land, despite efforts by relatives, and protracted negotiations with offers of payment by Lawrence Berenson, lawyer for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Ordered to vacate Cuban waters, Captain Gustav Schroeder made heroic efforts to find a non-German port to accept the refugees. He sailed for Miami, but the United States denied entry. A similar refusal came from Canada. Forced back across the Atlantic, the ship stopped in several European countries that agreed — following another intense set of negotiations — to take the passengers. Great Britain accepted 287; France, 224; Belgium, 214; and the Netherlands 181. In September 1939, Germany declared war. Other than the 287 taken into the relative safety of Great Britain, most of the rest of the passengers suffered the terrors of war. At least a quarter were exterminated by the Nazis.
In The German Girl, Anna and her mother are shaken from their depressing existence by a set of photos they receive from the 87-year-old Hannah Rosenthal, who turns out to have been one of the “lucky” passengers permitted a landing in Cuba. Having spent her whole life there, she has now reached out to her great-niece (Anna’s father was her nephew). Anna and her mother travel to Cuba, where Hannah reveals her life story in a series of largely expository chapters. Sharing her great loves and tragic losses, she generously roots Anna in her father’s family and puts Anna’s mother on a path forward.
In a recent review of Affinity Konar’s Mischling, Lisa Zeidner wrote:
The morality of fictionalizing the Holocaust has been a subject of scholarly discussion since philosopher Theodor Adorno famously declared “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Do the scaffolding of plot and invention, the linguistic embroidery, deny the actual victims their more authentic voices? Conversely, might fiction have “the power to take the narrative to places that survivor testimony cannot?” [citing Anna Richardson]
The German Girl begs a different question. Given Correa’s professional credentials, might this book have packed more punch as nonfiction? Perhaps a futile inquiry, but Correa’s journalistic instincts are apparent not just in his clear reporting on the voyage of the St. Louis, but throughout the book. For example, he introduces Jehovah’s Witnesses to make the very important point that the Nazis singled this group out for torture and brutality due to their refusal to accept totalitarian authority.
In Crossing the Borders of Time, journalist Leslie Maitland set out to find her mother’s teenage lover, lost to her when her family fled Nazi-occupied France. Her mother’s family was able to secure passage to Casablanca, and then to Cuba on the San Thomé in 1942. Describing the horrors of the St. Louis, Maitland notes the “infighting among unscrupulous officials,” Cuba’s corrupt immigration director, and the fruitless “frantic telegrams to President Roosevelt” and other world leaders.
Scholar Peter Gay describes his Berlin childhood under the Nazis in My German Question. Like many other highly assimilated and non-religious German Jews — including Hannah Rosenthal’s family — in 1933 “We had suddenly become Jews.” Deeply interested in the psychological ramifications, Gay says he cannot write autobiography, his has to be memoir. His past has proven “to be a mosaic with central pieces missing.” He recounts his father’s daring maneuvers to secure passage to Cuba. Finally obtaining visas and tickets for the St. Louis, his father, having an eerie sixth sense, took a harrowing risk to fake documents for passage on the Iberia, which sailed April 27 (two weeks earlier than the St. Louis).
The German-Jewish refugee community in Havana, numbering over three thousand, clung together and talked Germany: who was still caught up in the Nazi trap and what one could do to help….
Our ties to our former homeland…remained intimate and inescapable, a cause of wrenching anxieties.
Anxiety coupled with deracination’s fallout. A Longing in the Land, poet Arthur Gregor’s memoir of being forced as a teen to flee Vienna post Anschluss, makes clear the longing never ends:
The crack of displacement — irreparable, as I have learned — also affects our most personal relationships, often shapes or destroys them. It makes our need for them so urgent — for who but the object of one’s love can soothe this rift? — and this urgency works against them….
The anguish of this rift is not appeased.
The truth — documented — can be more powerful than fiction. And yet, doesn’t fiction provide the ultimate truth? Here’s Peter Gay:
That my mother loved me as much as she could seems to me beyond doubt, but her ability to give voice to her affection for me was compromised by her anxieties and her ailments.
Such a description fits perfectly both Hannah and Anna’s mothers in The German Girl. They are sleepless, ailing women, suffering from grief and worry. Through fiction, Correa has captured not only the unspeakable anxiety of protecting a family while fleeing for one’s life, but also the endless pain of deracination, emotions from which Hannah is never released. Speaking of her life in Havana, toward the end of the book she muses:
I can wander one last time among the colorful croton bushes, the poinsettias, the rosemary, basil, and mint herbs in the neglected garden of what has been my fortress in a city I never came to know.
Correa deploys facts to honor his fictional subjects. In a heartbreaking appendix, he lists every passenger on the St. Louis. If this ship’s manifest is insufficiently potent, Correa writes to remind us of the deadly consequences of closed borders, neglected refugees, and maligned and forgotten immigrants.
In Helene Cixous’s book, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, she speaks of three sources from which narratives take form: the school of death, the school of roots, and the school of dreams. Dreams must be followed but not over-analyzed, she cautions: “We must know how to dream as a dream, to leave it free, and to distrust all the exterior and interior demons that destroy dreams. We all have a demon, there is one hidden in a dream.” Later, when speaking to roots, she describes the place to which the writer must descend to unearth another form of demon. “Some call it hell: it is of course a good, a desirable hell.” The barrier between the writer and this hell, according to Cixous, is fear of uncovering something dangerous within.
However, some writers will descend. A form of hell is precisely what Grace Krilanovich writes to, and animates, in her novel The Orange Eats Creeps.
Although Krilanovich’s characters call themselves “vampires” they may or may not be vampires in the ghoulish sense the word usually brings to mind. And yet they certainly have their share of demons. Her vampires are not the surly, menacing Balkan variety that Téa Obreht chases after and chronicles in her recent Harper’s essay, “Twilight of the Vampires,” nor are they the ethically conflicted, more toothsome strain that dominate Western narratives like Twilight and True Blood. Obreht theorizes that the kinder, gentler American vampire “is the ultimate fantasy for a nation in decline.” While Krilanovich’s vampires, of the slutty hobo teenage junkie variety, are somewhat in line with Obreht’s assessment, instead of perpetuating fantasy they introduce a mythology of suburban decay.
The Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies take shelter in Safeways, 7-11s, and gas station bathrooms of the Pacific Northwest. They roam a countryside populated by meth houses, railways, gravel pits, and decrepit strip malls. There is a Highway That Eats People, which like the volcano of ages past, must be fed by young bodies (in their parents’ cars) in order to be pacified. Their kind are former foster children, runaways, outsiders who, by choice or not, slip beyond society. “Vampire” could as easily be called gutterpunk or street urchin. In a way, they’re just angry teenage misfits who act out, who wreak havoc for no reason. These vampires may not even be ageless, but they are still young enough that life seems interminable and its weight overwhelming, as if their lives will never end, no matter what destructive forces they encounter. They are restless, wandering souls.
The narrator’s initial foray into vampirism is prompted by her sister running away from their foster home. She “started sneaking out every night to suck men’s blood… I kept it up and eventually got caught with my mouth on some guy’s neck in a Safeway breakroom.” The vampires devour each other, sucking blood and sucking dick; and they devour themselves with their self-destructive tendencies, consuming at least as much meth and Robitussin as they do blood.
Krilanovich’s misfits join a vast list of literary protagonists and authors, like de Quincey, Balzac, Baudelaire, and Bourroughs, who sustain themselves on a cornucopia of drugs: uppers, white pills, Quaaludes, cough syrup, meth, alcohol, you name it. They have preferences of course, but they’re rather undiscriminating in their choices. Avital Ronell writes of addiction to drugs and literature, as well as within literature, in her book Crack Wars. Of addicted authors and addled literary characters, she writes:
…they tried to nourish themselves without properly eating. Whether injecting themselves or smoking a cigarette or merely kissing someone, they rerouted the hunting grounds of the cannibalistic libido. In a certain manner of conscious monitoring, they refused to eat–and yet they were always only devouring, or drinking up the toxic spill of the Other. Drugs make us ask what it means to consume anything, anything at all.
The narrator in The Orange Eats Creeps and her band of Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies are sustaining themselves with their addictions. The narrator hasn’t consumed any food except her gnawed fingernails, and at another point she notices the legs of her friend and lover, Seth, that buckle from malnourishment. As the narrator says of her companions (and this could be their mantra): “Our cause is nothing; we believe in nothing. Actually, we believe in Methamphetamine. I’ve been living off crank, cough syrup, and blood for a year now.” At times the vampirism and addiction merge and they imbibe Robitussin directly from veins. Blood is merely another substance they need and crave, no different than meth or bottles of cough syrup except for its source.
However, as vampires, their cannibalistic libido is still very much alive. As in Claire Denis’ erotic vampire film, Trouble Every Day, the vampiric desire for blood is conflated with sex and lust. In Denis’ film, Vincent Gallo’s character, Shane, refuses to have sex with his new wife, for fear that he’ll consume her, and Coré devours her victims during sex, biting off their lips, tearing their flesh with her teeth, lapping up their blood. For the narrator in The Orange Eats Creeps, sucking blood also has a sexually destructive edge. She first gets caught with her mouth on a man’s neck, and she starts turning tricks. When she awakens with little recollection of how she ended up in a waterbed, a man threatens to either “eat” her or to cut off her limbs. In turn she unleashes “blood-sucking rage” at these men who lay claim to her body. Almost in retaliation she wishes in a similar way to destroy them: “I seek prey out of the endless night, fog shrouding my knives, my secrets. I will rummage around in your soul–don’t let me! Don’t let me too close, I will bite you, I will tear at you, I want to eat you!”
At times Krilanovich’s vampires also ingest on a metaphysical level. The narrator speaks of a Laura Palmer-esque woman who was murdered, her body wrapped in a bundle and dumped. Her death was captured on videotape. The narrator watches this tape, and speaks of this woman, who is a vampire in her own way:
She will then kiss him full on the mouth, dropping breathless lips onto his, drawing back saliva to a place strange and wonderful in her brain and with it his thoughts, his being, a fluid transfer which has no more materiality than a kiss. It is this way she can know him, have him truly within her, to know his thoughts, to dream his dreams for him; to, in an abstract capacity, inhabit his way of being in this way–to not penetrate his core, but to take it into her so it becomes her core. All her life she had been amassing cores inside her body, to insert one more would not be a difficult task, and it would hardly be the last.
The narrator, in turn, ingests this woman’s core, filled with others like a Russian doll, by kissing the screen. This mix of blood, saliva, and desire–this is sex, and the narrator has devoured countless cores. She too is vulnerable, and decaying, morphing like one of the diseased characters in Charles Burns’ Black Hole. She loses track of the men she sleeps with, and also of herself: “More than once I found myself in the deli of the nearest Safeway going Who the fuck are you? over and over again. Who the fuck is this guy? I asked looking around. Later I found myself under a drunk guy and I was drunk too.” Even the narrative construction and the sense of time collapses towards the end.
The narrator’s dissipation of mind and body are intertwined. She falls asleep along a highway, and when she wakes she notices her “body had been moved several yards down the road. I noticed this only after raising my half-worm-eaten face from the pavement, heavy and winey, glancing back to where I had been several hours/days before.” At another point, too drunk and high to have sex, she naps in a tub, where she “noticed pieces of flesh sloughing off in grey sheets, plunging into sticky bathwater, each dissolving into a layer of ash on the surface of the anonymous liquid.”
This too parallels Black Hole, the illustrations of the woods, where the diseased teenagers’ skin sloughs and hangs from tree limbs. Burns’ characters also live in self-imposed exile in the Pacific Northwest. The teenagers band together after contracting a sexually transmitted disease that causes their skin to shed, their bodies to grow tails and new orifices; they become mutated forms of their previous selves. If Black Hole is a mythology of adolescence in Seattle in the 1970s, then Krilanovich’s book picks up the reins twenty years later, only slightly to the south in central Oregon.
“Every time I breathe out my skin flakes off in a puff of crepe dust, this means my body gets smaller and smaller every time I breathe. Someday I’ll blow away.” The insults on the narrator’s body gradually destroy her, and yet she keeps on. She will keep on until she disintegrates, as all of us will until our bodies break. By the end, Krilanovich’s narrator has encountered and embraced her own personal form of hell, which in its horror also contains a great beauty. Cixous’s book on writing also ends with the idea of disintegration, of writing to one’s death, of pushing limits until we are destroyed: “We must work. The earth of writing. To the point of becoming the earth.”