In the great disorder of wartime Berlin, Lucia Muller-Rossi was an unofficial star: mistress to an Ambassador, the whole world to her young son, and guardian of all the lovely things her Jewish friends were forced to leave behind as they took the trains tothe death camps. Sixty years later, one of those fine pieces sits for sale in the window of Lucia's antiques shop and its true owner happens to pass by. In that moment, a whole lifetime of silence cracks open and Lucia's family face the wrenching duty of examining a past almost too horrifying to remember.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Edition description:||First American Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.22(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.79(d)|
About the Author
Novelist, historian, journalist, and broadcaster Michael Pye is the author of ten other books including The Drowning Room and Taking Lives, soon to be a major motion picture starring Angelina Jolie. He is currently at work on his next novel.
Read an Excerpt
He went rolling down into the city, his coat like a cone of green felt all around him, like some round wooden toy: so good and kind and clever, so big and so kind, so that everyone knew he must be a truly happy man. Helen watched her father striding past the dark shine of wet shrubbery and the high suburban walls. One minute he was in a puddle of streetlamp light, then the dark, then the next light: a flickerbook man.
She double-locked the apartment door, ran down the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator, and she followed him. She was afraid of what he might do next.
The cold ached on her skin. There was mist lying sodden among the plain buildings and gray squares of Zurich, gilt clocks poking up out of lanes, the last relentless red geraniums, with linden trees bare, and blue trams snaking by the water, the lake steamers and beyond them shops that glowed with their own gold, armored with huge glass.
He mustn’t see her.
He was a brisk, effortless walker, used to scampering on mountains; she followed a block or two back, just able to make sure he was still ahead: the round man, in late middle age, under the shell of his green felt loden coat. His hair was white, and carefully wild: a professorial head. He had never once been ashamed of the great globe of his belly because he was not a self-conscious man.
Purposeful people were lined up for trams. The first shop and office lights were burning. At this blank time of the morning, hardly any light yet, the fact that he was moving was enough to make him stand out. Helen shivered as she walked. Her father retired from this kind of purpose years ago, had no obligation now to stride out on a bleak morning with the frost still standing in the trees.
He turned down the hill to the lake. He didn’t nod at any of the galleries on the street, not even the one that belonged to her husband, Jeremy: didn’t pause at all. She thought maybe he would catch a tram at the great turntable station down at Bellevue, but he didn’t. He wanted to keep moving. He didn’t even have time to wait to be carried where he was going.
Along the gray Limmat now, quiet and decorous: a triangle rushing along on his broad base, not bothering to look at the city around him. It was, in any case, already perfectly clean, no condom, ticket, newspaper, or candy wrapper left on the streets to anchor it even in the history of last night.
Nicholas Müller-Rossi knew better. He remembered things, which was what made him ominous.
In ordinary circumstances, he was happy to share in the official civic memory of the city: the memory that makes James Joyce an eye patient, Wagner a bit too showy, Lenin a good quiet tenant although he had visitors the night the Winter Palace fell. He liked the anesthesia of all that convention, to feel at home in a city whose great art is the window display, whose local poet is honored for being a good government clerk, although also a drunk.
But the circumstances were not ordinary at all. Nicholas cut across the Limmat and through the lanes up to the open space of Lindenhof. Helen slowed down, even though the cold caught at her legs. Only a few lanes led up to Lindenhof, and the park itself was small, and she did not want him to see her.
He could make his own mind up, she told herself. She thought he might just need her.
He stood looking down on the houses racked up each side of the valley, little terraces and squares, an ingrown city full of plain fountains.
Three days ago, Nicholas Müller-Rossi read in the newspaper that his father had died: ancient, at ninety-five, in a small town in a valley with a lake.
Two days ago, he had gone to see if he could pay for a wreath or subsidize the funeral masses; first the local florist and then the local priest said there was no need. Everything had been attended to. Everything had been considered.
So today he would be a spectator at the funeral, not taking part because he had been told he was not welcome.
Helen watched him stamp one foot and then the other: like a windup toy that’s frustrated by a rug, she thought. She’d like to give him coffee, courage, anything he needed. She couldn’t tell if he had yet decided to go or not to go.
All Nicholas did, for a moment, was stand under the bare trees, on a path of soft leafmeal, and brood.
He once had a friend who was a pharmacist. Every morning at nine, this friend went to the end of a tramline and opened the doors of a bright white confessional, a shop with shining walls and neat drawers, him in a starched white coat with young women, such graceful young women perfumed with oxygen, fetching and whispering. And everyone came, citizens and neighbors, the ones who kept such a perfect facade, the ones with good credit, fine names, a seat in church and a slot in the graveyard: and they told him things.
This one had a bruise that couldn’t be explained, a yeast was infiltrating decent households, tiny, armored insects got in the private parts of the nicest people; this one needs vitamin B and codeine on account of the mornings after drinking, and this one needs eyedrops, homeopathic number 2, on account of the pills; and you could chart the cracks in marriages through the times they suddenly needed hair dyes, anti-flatulents, and tonics. He even knew the most terrible secrets of all: the antidepressants and tranquilizers and barbiturates which revealed when they lacked confidence for a moment in the perfect order of their lives.
Then the pharmacist retired. He said the whole business had changed him; he couldn’t even buy aspirin without wondering what the pharmacist knew. His conversation was mostly hints: he knew where the whole city itched.
Then there were the secrets kept in dealers’ safes, in the vaults of banks, in files and archives. Nicholas Müller-Rossi looked at the lake mist and the low cloud and it seemed to him the outward, visible sign of some great communal silence.
Standing around isn’t proper in Zurich; you need a purpose, a destination. Nicholas, when he went traveling, wandered canals in Venice or Amsterdam, prowled boulevards in Paris, spent imaginary money up and down New York. But here, close to home, going somewhere in particular was a moral matter.
Helen thought for a moment he was going to turn back. She wasn’t good at tucking into doorways like some private eye; the shops were not yet open; if she ran, she’d be conspicuous, but he’d outwalk her if he chose the same lane.
So she didn’t see him leave Lindenhof at all, bustling down to the lovely, empty riches of Bahnhofstrasse, passing easily by the windows that used to fascinate him as a boy—the painted fruit, the spotlit hats, the occasional Chagall next door to fur and lace.
He bought his ticket from the machine at the main station, wonderfully efficient with the coins. He checked the information board, sorted out his train from the grand expresses and the suburban shuttles.
She knew he’d have to take the train. She checked the times and platforms so she could see him waiting.
She wouldn’t offer to go with him. She had seen her grandfather once or twice, so her parents had told her. He was a bit of biology somewhere in the past, the necessary condition of her father and of Helen. But he wasn’t there to be loved.
Nicholas settled on the upper deck of the Lucerne train.
He’d gone to see the priest, of course, to offer to pay for the seventh-day Mass, the year Mass. The priest said that was already arranged. He went to the graveyard gardener, thinking the man would be glad to set up the usual twenty-year contract to tend some flowers and clean the grave, but the man wouldn’t listen to him.
The train streamed through trees that were prickled with ice.
He had his condolence card in the pocket of his loden coat: black-bordered, inlaid with paper that wanted to be parchment, a Rembrandt sketch of a bridge in a black landscape on the cover. He had paid ten francs for it, carefully chosen the middle range of price. “Heartfelt sympathy,” it said, which was not at all what he meant, but that was what all the cards said: the proper thing to say.
They hadn’t even told him.
His fists balled and unballed, whatever he thought. He could recite a sonnet and his fists kept getting ready for a fight. He wished the train was already in Lucerne, that he could be on the connection up to the little mountain town where his father was to be buried. He’d already had far too much time to think.
He was the first family: the scandal, not to be mentioned. When his father and mother divorced in 1945 there must also have been an annulment; his father was a good Catholic. His father had simply started life all over again, a banking automaton living in Zug, and started a new family who would all today stand around the grave and be allowed to see the body and pray their father into death. They had been told, he gathered, first that his mother died with Nicholas in the bombing of Berlin; and then, when one of the kids came home with one of Nicholas’s books, on the early historical plays of Shakespeare, the story had been changed. Nicholas was as good as dead, even if technically alive, and his mother was written out of his father’s story altogether.
He found the name of one of his half brothers in the phone book, and called to ask if he could do anything for the funeral. The man had said: “Yes. You can stay away.”
But Nicholas was much too good a man to imagine a solidarity that depended on keeping someone out. A family couldn’t be that frail.
He was hungry for tears. He had to see his father one last time, make the reconciliation that had been impossible in life; he had to cry.
Stepping down into Lucerne station, he lost his breath for a moment, as though he’d lost his concentration on living.
He didn’t have a choice, he told himself.
He walked down the platform to find the Brünig train, and he saw himself from a distance: a man in his late sixties, too respectable and too old to be troublesome, the kind people trust instinctively when they want a suitcase watched or directions to the ticket office. The very idea of agony in such a man would seem ridiculous to all his fellow passengers if he expressed it for a moment, maybe the first sign of senile dementia, maybe he was drunk, maybe he was simply too old to hold himself in the official and orderly present tense.
He wanted to howl. He bought a sandwich to stuff his mouth and stop himself.
All Helen could do was wait. She went to the kitchen, full of dustless and unsparkling light, and she began to tug ingredients out of shelves and wrappers: two black shining aubergines, some leeks that looked too clean to have grown in earth, red chicory, zucchini, hothouse peppers with skins like armor. She sliced and trimmed and cleaned with a big knife: took the immaculate objects and broke them up and brought out the fine brown seeds that stained the aubergine flesh, the seeds and fiber inside the shine of the peppers. The room took on a faint scent. She tasted olive oil on her finger, and mixed it with hot pepper, soy sauce, and a little balsamic vinegar; then painted the vegetables and laid them onto a hot grill pan. And then the room had a subtle, sugary smoke to catch at the bright light: the air caramelized.
Not enough. The corridor shone, but it didn’t smell of cedar, beeswax, pine. The windows were immaculate; she couldn’t smell the slightest trace of the ammonia that the twice-weekly woman used to clean them.
She tugged the Federbett out of the way and threw herself down on the bed. She rolled to one side, then the other.
She buried her face in the sheets. She was glad she hadn’t changed them since Jeremy left.
She was too damned young to collect souvenirs.
She was lying here, thinking about bliss. But thoughts of bliss, before you knew it, had a way of emptying out and leaving you with calculated pictures: with thoughts of roses, gardens, Alpine stars, of reef water, brilliant pink mornings, no surprises, of opera at seven and escapes on express trains, nothing that could not be put in a brochure or a timetable. She didn’t want that; she wanted something particular to her.
Nicholas should not have gone to the funeral, she thought. Then she tried to smother herself again in the smell of the sheets.
His train arrived at nine twenty-four. He would need a taxi to the church, which was in the next small town. He would arrive there by nine forty-five. The funeral announcement in the newspaper was for ten o’clock, so perhaps he would have time to leave his condolence card, to see his father’s face in the coffin one last time, and then shadow the services that followed.
He was quite still inside his coat: tense and impassive. The mists were shifting, so he could see the white shine and the black skin of the mountains, and catch faint color in the lake waters.
He brought no flowers. He had thought about it, but it seemed too much of a provocation, and too easy to have his wreath put aside or lost. But he wanted to bring flowers. There was a shop by the station, and he asked for white asters. They had them, but in wreaths. He said he didn’t want a wreath; he wanted a loose bunch of white flowers. The assistant brought them surreptitiously and with a bit of a sneer, as though she was selling him something irregular. She couldn’t see why a cross old man would want white asters. If he was going to a funeral, he shouldn’t be cross.
He didn’t mean to shout at her, but he lost time buying flowers and he was anxious. At ten o’clock the mourners would have formed a wall at the graveyard chapel.
The taxi driver was a huge woman with a silver tooth. She saw him with the white asters and said: “Church?” He said yes, but the next town. “The graveyard,” he said.
She drove at a decorous speed, which annoyed him more, and left him by the graveyard.
The mist was still flirting with the ground, pulling up and settling back again. The chapel was an oblong of dark. In front of it was the cart on four wheels they used for moving new trees, old dung, and now his father’s coffin. There was a flat bowl set out to take the condolence cards.
He knew the coffin would be open to show his father’s face. He didn’t know his father’s face, not the ways it must have changed in forty years. If he could see the face, he would at least know his father, know him by sight which was all that there was left to him.
He took his glasses and polished them, absently, as though he was standing in front of some seminar.
He heard a car. There must be cars coming and going on the road; you couldn’t expect perfect silence for a funeral even here in the bowl of white mountains. He stepped forward. One of the graveyard workers looked up at him. He put his card into the bowl.
He moved in the heavy, meaningful way that people use in church. He turned toward the cart with the coffin.
The first mourners were coming through the white curtain of mist, straggling up the path to the chapel.
He saw them, but he didn’t want to see them. He wanted to see his father.
The graveyard worker cleared his throat.
The mourners, all in proper black, came forward. The men, he could see, wore overcoats and suits that were far too tight; they kept the black for funerals, and funerals were not that common in their lives. They were younger, naturally.
Nicholas passed the coffin. Inside he saw his own face, but drawn and ruckled in ways he hadn’t yet seen in the morning mirror: himself, worn out. He wanted to kiss the face.
The mourners were close now.
He must protect his father’s dignity. He walked briskly away. The graveyard workers, out of instinct, made a guard around the coffin.
One of the women looked in the bowl of condolence cards. There was, of course, only one so far. She opened it, she read the signature, she tore it into pieces.
He sat on a cold wood bench and looked down at the mourners around the grave. He asked himself if his father would have wanted him there.
They were praying in a knot about the black gap in the ground. Then the coffin was lowered on strong ropes. Then they were blessing the coffin, one by one, with a spray of holy water. The ground was white with chrysanthemums and asters.
He remembered the last time he saw his father, except briskly or by chance or at some occasion where they were not obliged to talk. It was in the 1950s, when Nicholas was twenty and angry on principle with most of the real world.
All his long life had been full. His life had been his. It had only this peculiar quality: that it began when he was twenty or so, that he had to put away everything that happened before then.
His father was in Zug. He’d come out of the wartime army and into the bank, same rank, same manners, better pay. Most people did much the same: the men glided into work, the women went home again, somehow the fact of Armageddon on every border did not break up the usual life of Switzerland. His mother was in business for herself by then, and she was wholly exceptional; during the war, women only worked unofficially, as stopgaps and temps, so they were simply replaced when peace started. Everybody went back to their places.
Every year in the army Nicholas, a professor with a doctorate, wanted to peel potatoes. Every year, everyone was shocked.
Nicholas’s father had already started his second family: two girls, pretty but stolid. He loved Nicholas, but did not want to be reminded of everything that went with him, his mother included, so the meeting was peculiarly tense. Nicholas was not so much a son as an anomaly. And Nicholas was self-righteous, and drank too much beer at lunch and his father thought him sloppy.
The mourners had walked away from the grave now, gone to the church for the funeral Mass. The priest, duly briefed, would extol the past of Nicholas’s father, gild his story and make it sound like a moral tale. Nicholas would not be mentioned, nor his mother.
In that moment he thought he could move like a ghost, not quite seen. He carried white asters in both his hands, loose bunches of them. The gravediggers had a flask of coffee, maybe with pear Trasch in it; they were busy.
He threw all the flowers at once into the grave. They spilled out like stars against the black earth.
He would have liked some comfortable memory, but all he had was his father producing an official booklet from the war years, with brown covers. His father said he’d thought of sending it to Nicholas’s mother. It seemed that since the men had brown notebooks to keep a log of their days on active service, women were expected to have one too.
So Nicholas read: “The homeland requires our resolute will for freedom, honor and humanity. Our homeland in these times requires,” and then the list. Number one: “Women who don’t complain.” Number two: “Women who willingly take deprivation upon themselves.” Three: “Women who raise strong children prepared for sacrifice.” Four: “Women who conscientiously use household appliances.”
He had burst out laughing. His father was half offended, as though he’d giggled at the creed, and half agreed. He said: “You can see why I never sent it. Read on.” Nicholas was very aware that his father was watching him closely.
Eight, he read, “Women who with open eyes and warm hearts recognize the need of their neighbors and who support those in need of help.”
He looked up at his father and his father inspected him. They were a conspiracy of two, agreed not to make too clear a mental picture of Mama Lucia helping neighbors with a warm heart. He had read on, with some relief, out loud: “. . . stand up for the future of our country.”
“It’s not a terrible thing,” his father said. “Standing up for the future of your country.”
Nicholas said he had to get back.
“It’s not a terrible thing,” his father said. “It wouldn’t be so terrible a thing to have children. To stand up for your country.”
“If you know what your country is,” Nicholas said.
Nicholas tried to make a joke of it, asking his father to imagine his mother being “conscientious” with a household appliance. But they were in terrible trouble: father and son trouble, fueled with the beer. They went for a walk, bristling.
Nicholas was very aware of the dead smell of the earth, of the shine where the spades had cut his father’s grave.
It was the streets that had started it. They were clean. They were neat. The buildings were all bunker solid and gray and decent and regular and somehow untouched. Nicholas thought the town was like a necropolis: a garden necropolis, architect-designed. Balconies for the dead to water their petunias. Sidewalks to step away from their black, black cars. Buses that took them to places nobody could particularly want to go, and took them regularly.
He was furious, but his father took this decorous world for granted, and kept smiling so that nobody else would notice how angry or how drunk or how—how shamefully, irresponsibly young his son was. He wore that smile like his suit and tie: his uniform disguise.
And Nicholas remembered thinking: They’re not in this century. They hadn’t been bombed or starved or tortured or burned. They’d been spared the whole terrible process of changing and even growing up. So when the war ended, all they cared about was keeping very, very still, like an animal that’s been cornered.
He said all that.
He wondered if there was a spell to call back words from the ears of the dead.
His father had been quiet, reasonable, as though he was talking about the content of his son’s last literature course or the last book he’d read. But he insisted on his words. Nicholas tried to talk over him, but he heard him, all the same. He was saying he’d worn a uniform, been prepared to fight, had gone to the Alps with the army to save the nation.
And Nicholas, all righteous, had said: Then what about all the flatlands where everybody lived? What about the women and children who were down on the plains while you were up the mountains playing at cowherds?
His father had talked, matter of fact, about sacrifice. About there not being money. About being billeted on some family near the border by France; it was where he met his second wife. He said people were hungry. They were afraid.
Nicholas asked why he never wrote to tell him all this truth. He said: How could he? He couldn’t write anything like the truth in a letter that was going to Berlin. He couldn’t tell his son how they were pulling every last old gun out of the cellars, rusty ones, ones with wormhole in the stocks. Or how all the best kind of people left town suddenly when the Germans were supposed to march in, and then for five years everybody else just sat around waiting and waiting and waiting.
Nicholas had said: “You did write to me. You told me about how the central heating was cut, and how maybe people were all the healthier for it. And you mentioned gas masks, and the blackout.”
Until that moment, Nicholas now thought, his father might have regretted the distance between them.
But he turned then. They were on the steps of some big civic building in Zug, columns and pediments and maybe lions in stone. The building was like propaganda. And he said: “I know you were in Berlin. I know things weren’t good. But don’t think you can come here and try to be like the damned Germans—always arrogant, always sure you have the best music, the best poetry. Then the best wickedness. Then the greatest heroism in facing the best damned pain.”
Nicholas said his father had no idea what Nicholas and his mother had been through in Berlin. He said his father hadn’t lived it, and he couldn’t now make up for it.
His father sat down on the steps.
It was an outrageous thing to do. He was a proper banking gentleman, who might well go for a brisk walk with his young son, who’d be entitled to walk away complaining if his son shouted too loud; and there he was, down on the stone ground. He looked up at Nicholas.
“You belong to her,” he said. “Don’t you?”
Nicholas was so angry he didn’t know what to say anymore. He walked away. His father sat there, looking after him. The one time Nicholas looked back, he seemed so sad, so shocked all at once, as though it was a catastrophe to have the perfect surfaces of his world challenged.
He wrote a letter to Nicholas that evening. In it, he listed the charges against his first wife, mother of Nicholas, after the war: blackmail, extortion, receiving stolen goods. That was all. And he sent his love.
The mourners would go to lunch now, schnapps and wine, three solid courses, maybe venison because it was the season, and a half pear filled with red-currant jelly and the small white noodles. Nicholas could taste it all. A bottle of Fendant. A bottle of Dôle. They wouldn’t cry and they wouldn’t laugh, not until they had the schnapps.
He walked out of the graveyard, a shade much too solid not to draw attention. He thought of going back in the afternoon to see the grave settled and dressed with flowers, but he did not want to meet the others. He kept walking in the cold, and now that the mist had lifted off the lake, his face burned with the bright, metallic light off the high slopes.
He was an old man, officially. He had cards to prove he was an old man. He was a widower, a father, a retiree; there was nothing left to change in his life. He had lacked a father almost all his life, forfeited his father’s attention completely at the age of twenty, made a good marriage, made a life that was perfectly sufficient and self-contained, a fort from which to watch the world. But now that his father was gone, he was shivering.
He had to walk Bahnhofstrasse on his way home. He passed his mother’s shop. He wondered if she even knew that Herr Müller, half her name, much of her credibility, was dead, and that he had been buried that day.
The shop was painted rooms, lights as gold and rose as anything on a stage, a nice commercial dawn in between chemists and bookshops. The shine of the place was inventoried: its wax and glazes, glass, gilt and biscuit. In the window, a few small Meissen pieces: a dwarf with whiskers like a cat, two porcelain heads of children that would obviously be the originals, a pretty beaker with stooped Chinese and a baby dragon. Beyond that, a defensive wall of marquetry and plush and ormolu: engulfing sofas, tables spiked with ornament, bureaus which could fortify entire new social classes. Beyond that front line, the far interior of the shop was a warm, welcoming confusion of pretty things, china and glass, delicate bent legs, enamels and inlays shining against fine rosewood. Tapestry hung on the walls: a zebra, a hunt.
He could see her through the windows: a porcelain figure, suggested with paint, in her plain round chair—Louis Delanois, still underpriced, no provenance to speak of—surveying her empire. It was pretty. It was profitable. It was pleasant. Nothing here would challenge unduly, unless it challenged someone’s wallet. She had spent half a century dealing in the refined and elegant trivia of a civilization, trying to imbue it with significance: a date here, the name of an artisan, a place in history for a pot, a chair, a bit of porcelain which would not even hold a meal or support a visitor.
Nicholas stood at the door and thought about going to talk with her. But they were not used to being spontaneous.
An assistant stood by her, the keeper of keys, making the nightly checks: the alarm systems, the storeroom lights and dehumidifi- ers, whether the coffee machine was shut down. Nicholas sympathized: it must be hard in these last half hours before the shop was locked, because Lucia was no longer the authority, the patron, but a body to be inspected in an almost scientific way.
She was so old now that age had become her very nature; Nicholas could see that. And yet she traded still on the remains of bright eyes, dark eyes. The hair was dyed the color of old flames. The skin was like cloth, ridged and draped, but over bones so strong and fine that the features stole your whole attention. He saw her as something out of a storybook, where being old always has its own dark meaning: wisdom or evil or magic.
She checked the answering machine again. She always did that herself.
Nicholas read her lips. “That will be all,” she was saying.
The front lights went down. She was left in the gleam of the back of the shop, in the warmth of rosewood and gold and kind lights, and she stood up. She was making a phone call.
Nicholas decided not to wait.
She would go home now, and have a glass of Madeira, to which she had become accustomed in old age. Someone would bring her eggs.
Nicholas went briskly into the lanes of the old town. He thought he might spend the night with Helen and Jeremy again. He liked the notion of playing drums with their son Henry, of setting out the Lego train and running it.
But he couldn’t bear to talk. So he took the train and then the bus to Sonnenberg: to his house, to the house he made with Nora, to the place where Nora was still alive to him.
Helen paced the white rooms, huge steps. She liked order, but she liked it more when Henry was here, crabwise shuffling on one buttock over the floor, beating on his tin drums, assembling his train and taking the tracks apart to make proper crashes. She wanted handprints on the immaculate surfaces, a sense of breath and action.
She thought of Nicholas. Then she tried to think of her grandfather, who was an absence in her mind; she hadn’t even bothered to invent some whiskery, selfless, beaming grandfather, so Alpine his breath would be wildflowers, just to fill the gap. She thought of Nicholas’s loss, and, not knowing the man he was mourning, she could think of it only in the most general terms, which helped nobody.
And as for her grandmother, the cause of all this, she knew nothing Lucia did not want her to know.
She’d been taken to tea at the Grand Hotel Dolder, in the formidable propriety of the old-fashioned rooms; and sometimes to buy clothes, which did not much interest her own mother; sometimes to the Kunsthaus where Lucia talked very sensibly about Giacometti’s sketches, for which she had a clever passion; sometimes on a walk where Helen could confess, happily, anything that crossed her mind, but never somehow confessed any questions, a walk which always ended with chocolate and cream. Lucia knew things, and Lucia gave things. Given the closeness of her father and her mother, which was like claustrophobia to Helen as a child, this old woman had been the vent, the breath, the frivolity in her very young life.
She’d always assumed Lucia was too busy with the shop to see her often. But perhaps her parents rationed out such a heady treat. They must have had their reasons.
A Conversation with Michael Pye
author of THE PIECES FROM BERLIN
Q: Your new novel, THE PIECES FROM BERLIN, is based on a real historical figure who accumulated wealth after World War II by selling art she had obtained from Jewish families in Berlin. How did you happen upon this true story, and what inspired you to adapt it for a novel?
A: I heard the story at a dinner party in Zurich -- from a TV journalist friend who'd been chasing down what the Swiss did in the art markets in World War II. Some of the stories I knew
already, some of them were headline news, and then there was one story about a particular woman.
A cultured Italian woman, she had been in wartime Berlin. She looked after the property of her Jewish friends, sometimes offered to help with sending their money abroad, and then she saw them taken off to the camps. She got out of the ruins of Berlin with seven truckloads of their most precious things. She ended up rich and grand and respectable - selling their fine items in a Zurich antiques shop. And she died happy in her villa by the lake. Her crimes were appalling, and then there was something almost worse: the comfortable way she survived them.
I really tried to get the story out of my mind. It was a horror story, an offense to any idea of justice. But I knew my journalist friend had already done everything possible to research
the story. So, for me, it had to be imagined, a work of fiction rooted in facts.
Writing this novel was dangerous work -- I mean, morally dangerous. Lucia knew how to fascinate; she knew how to use sex and pity and greed and kindness. You see the humanity in a criminal like this,and you warm a little to her, and you have to keep your moral bearings. How much can you know and understand before you lose the power to judge? How do you keep alive the reality of what she did, after she becomes a vulnerable old woman?
I knew this couldn't be a simple story about Nazi gold. It's about the shadow of terrible crimes. It is a mystery, in its way: a story in which we get closer and closer to the truth of what happened, to the mind and the circumstances that made it possible.
Q: You live and write near Coimbra, Portugal. The novel is set mainly in Zurich, but involves characters whose lives and art collections span much of Europe. Where did your research lead you?
A: Deep rural Portugal is a good place to retreat and write, but you're absolutely right -- the story was somewhere else. It meant traveling, and not just from place to place; it meant trying to imagine the life of a socialite daughter in Milan almost a century ago, then the life of a child in Berlin being bombed to ruins. So I spent a year walking the streets of the cities in the book, working in libraries, looking at all the photographs I could find in archives and listening, listening, listening to people. I wanted to be responsible as a historian. Then I wanted to make history a matter of the heart.
There's one afternoon I remember particularly. I went to a private collection in Zurich, assembled by a gun-maker who sold anti-aircraft weapons to the Nazis and who collected art all the way through World War II, when paintings that once belonged to Jewish collectors could be purchased for almost nothing. I stood in the midst of these glittering paintings -- the Delacroix on the stairs, the Gaugin in the corner, the Picasso on the way to the attic -- and just for one terrible moment I wondered what I would have been capable of doing to have such wonderful things. I knew when I started this book, I'd have to go to the very limits of my moral certainties. I can tell you: it's frightening there.
Q: The novel shifts in perspective, depicting the lives of each member of the Muller-Rossi family, as well as the travelers who confront them about the origins of the antiques in Lucia Muller-Rossi's shop. Why did you tell the story this way, rather than choose one protagonist?
A: Lucia's story belongs to many people. It belongs to her son, who thought he had to keep quiet just so he could have a life. To his children, who insist on speaking out, who can't understand how the silence could have gone on for half a century. To the woman who challenges Lucia, but does not want, after such a long life, to be reduced to a victim. And to the outsiders, us, the ones who don't know our history well enough to see what happened and what it meant. We have to see Lucia through the eyes of very different people, those who love her as well as those who have every reason to hate her -- until finally we have a chance to see through the eyes of Lucia herself.
We're still in the shadow of much that happened in the Second World War. We're being shocked by things we should have known and settled half a century ago.
Q: In describing one character during the period immediately following World War II, you write: "War didn't change him. Peace did." Tell us a bit about this statement. Is this a sentiment you encountered as you talked with people who had survived the war?
A: That's only one character talking, of course. But you do find that notion. People came back from war, so they told me, ready to start anew, often very willing to put their war experience far behind them. My own parents have only just begun to talk about the war in any detail, and they're now in their nineties. What they cared about was making something new, something different. But you can't do that if there is unfinished business. . .
Q: The Second World War is a period that writers and readers continue to mine for stories. What do you think readers of this novel might find surprising about WWII and its aftermath?
A: Sometimes I think we see the abominable acts of the Nazis and we assume there must be some grand, epic reason behind them: something as evil as the acts themselves. The truth is that there is another story, one which cuts down the villains without underestimating the scope and the horror of their crimes. It's the story at human scale, the story of all those who took advantage, the ones who found the moral universe turned upside down and just did what would give them cash or power or pleasure. It's the net of small crimes that made possible the enormous one of the Shoah itself.
They're the crimes we can imagine. They're the crimes that test what any one of us might have done. That's why I had to tell this story.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
excellent book, I had to read all of his other books
Another one I gave up on. It looks back at WWII in Europe in short, choppy sections made up of short, choppy sentences, and with little sense of story line.