Monday, January 25, 2016

Manja, The Wall, Five Destinies, by Anna Reiner/Anna Gmeyner Persephone Book

Manja , by Ann Gmeyner, was originally published as Manja in Amsterdam, 1938, then published in England in 1939 as The Wall and in the States as Five Destinies.  So when I looked for it at our local library I found two books listed under Anna Gmeyner, The Coward Heart and Five Destinies, so since I was not able to get Manja, I thought let me read some other of her works.  I actually started reading the Coward Heart, then looked at Five Destinies and saw that indeed Five Destinies was the book I wanted because it is in fact Manja.

I told my husband about the three different titles and he said well how do they relate?  And I thought about that and said, well the story is centered around a girl Manja, there are five friends, thus the title Five Destinies and they always meet on a Wall every Wednesday and Saturday thus the title The Wall, they all make sense.  But I favour the original title Manja and that is how Persephone has released it and it was obviously the authors original choice.

Another interesting fact is that on the first American edition, 1939; which is what I got from our local library the author is named as Anna Reiner and it says:

Anna Reiner is a German refugee living at present in London.  Her name is an assumed one - assumed for obvious reasons, members of her family still living under the swastika.  In deference to Miss Reiner's wishes it is impossible to give further biographical details concerning her.

The story opens with the title The End As A Beginning.  

The end is 1932 the beginning is 1920

They had been like kittens wanting to keep together.  But now the cosy basket of their childhood was upset and they could never climb into it again.

Thus the die is cast at the beginning you are not surprised at the end, but the story unfolds the lives of these five children, Heini Heidemann, whose father is a doctor with a lung injury from serving in WWI, who marries a life long friend Hanna, a happy marriage.  Franz Meissner whose father is a mean man who takes every petty insult personally and comes home and takes it out on his wife and beats up his son.  Harry Hartung the son of Max who is a prosperous banker of half Polish and half Jewish heritage, married to an aryan making Harry quarter Jewish.  Karl Muller whose father believes in Communist ideology, also cannot keep a job but for different reasons to Franz's father.  They are poor like the Meissner family, but Anna their mother is a loving giving soul and it makes all the difference.  And last Manja, Manja Meirowitz, whose father Leo and mother Lea are both Jewish.  Manja comes to find out that Leo is not her real father.

Each opening chapter is dedicated to the birth of each child, what led up to that event.  Heini his mother Hanna sitting in her pensione room, having just departed from her love Ernst, thinking he will never propose to her because he doesn't want to burden her with a sick person.

One's twenty-five years old, has lived a good deal, is grown up, earns a living, has to go on existing.  It strikes a quarter to eleven.  Why, actually?  For whom actually?  Forty-eight roses and forty-four and a half parrots. (on the wallpaper of her room) 

Miracle of miracle he returns.

Happiness has music similar to the remote murmur when a tiger-cowry is held to the ear.

Anton Meissner returns home from a political meeting, where his wife Freida is always toting up figures for the groceries, always holding her tongue and watching what she says. 

"You won't?  You don't want your husband?  Refuse eh?  A young girl what?"  he sniggers.  "You still owe me a son and heir, Freida, you understand?"

Hilde Hartung is beautiful Max not so.

"You will never love me, I know, but if you ever love someone else ..."

... he was not real a phantom, a Golem carrying her in a dream over moonlit roofs.

Eduard Muller comes home very late from work, he didn't want to come home and tell his wife that he had lost yet another job, for standing up for the rights of a fellow employee.  Anna bakes apples and the smell is wonderful and it takes the edge of the terrible news of a lost job.

But not till night, as they lie in bed, does he conquer his shyness.  Not till darkness veils his face. and hers, can he say: "My good Anna, my old Anna."

And Manja, Lea and David Goldstraub, are crushed together at the end of a town music concert in a Polish border town.  He an out of work composer and she says she is a singer.

And for her too this night was different from all other nights, arousing her, lifting her above herself, so that her body perceived what was not comprehensible to her understanding, felt fear and passion and death streaming into her from him, experienced for the first time how close the delight of union is to the torment of death.

For the grey morning has transformed the square room into a crate barrel with shadows.  And this time he will escape from it for ever.  Not till he is outside, separated by a long corridor from the sleeping girl, does he take hold of the little pistol in his pocket and perform one last unimportant act.

These five children from the age of eight to twelve, meet on the wall.

"We'll take an oath,"  said Manja.  The boys agreed.

"It's already recorded!"  Her hand pointed once again to the constellation Cassiopeia. ...

"One, two, three, four, five!"  Her voice climbed up a scale of triumph.  "My star is the one in the middle.  Heinz, Karl, Manja, Harry, Franz.  It's recorded in heaven.

1928 to 1932 and onwards was a very turbulent time in German history, war reparations were unrealistically high and were crushing Germany's economy, followed by the Wall Street crash sent Freida's grocery figures into the millions, she just couldn't add them up anymore and neither could any German.

During this time period Hitler rose to power through the twenties and one must remember he did this democratically, there was no coup in Germany, although a lot happened behind the scenes.  The man on the street wanted better and he was ready to sell his birthright for a bowl of stew.

Frau Reuter, the concierge, or you could say old woman who reported on everybody, where the Meissner's, Muller's and Meirowitz's lived.

Frau Reuter stood there, her elbows planted in the stomachs of two neighbors.  Let those go indoors who wanted to!  She had battled her way through to the first row where the sparks from the pine splinters flew past her face and the smell of leather, puttees and uniforms entered her nostrils.

"Yes," said Anna.  In the midst of waving hands and arms, fluttering handkerchiefs and flags, she is alone, sober-minded among the ecstatic, silent among those who sang.  "Like the outbreak of war,"  she said.

The poor should be rich, the tired strong, dried-up women be desired.  The blind would see and the lame walk.  Everything would be different:  there was now hope.

Gmeyner captures the mood of the German people here and describes it so well, all caught up in the mad ideology.

You have five groups of people and these are reflected in Manja:  by the Meissner's who rise to power, moving from the back dark side of the apartment building to the front sunny side.

"A new age begins," said the threatening voice on the wireless, and Frieda felt this between the fingers touching the painted wood on the flower-boxes, felt it in the sun's warmth caressing the yellow skin under her thin hair.

By the Mullers, who are Communist and come for Eduard in the night.

"No, no, they can't Anna."  And in not speaking, not pressing her hands, he paid off the great debt he owed her,.  By denying his feelings anything unusual, not even kissing his wife, not even patting the boy on his head or saying a word of reconciliation to his daughter, by this he took the whole burden from her on to himself. 

 Ernst Heinemann who has no power to change anything even though he tries to through the justice system, but there is no justice now because it has been hijacked by a despot.

There is not murder done to-night because there is no one to name the murderers.  No one is lying motionless on the frozen ground with his face downwards.  No one asks what is happening this night in all the streets, corners and remote woods everywhere in the country.  It is a night without law.  No crime because there is no accuser.

The guilt of inaction, the crime of letting things drift, weighed heavily on Heidemann's shoulders like a physical burden, and placed him in the empty space, in the enormous loneliness of roaming between the fronts, that piece of earth under fire, riddled with shell holes, bounded by barbed wire, and belonging neither to friend nor foe.  No man's land.

The Hartung's who take a huge fall financially but don't care a fig about politics, just living.  Max had given a large donation to the hospital.

"Twelve years that name's infected the hospital here," whispered Sister Mathilde.  Hastily, as though her triumph might even now be stolen from her, she dragged the heavy tablet into the instrument room and leaned it in a corner with its inscription against the wall.  A gravestone without a name.

I find that last sentence to be bitterly poignant, remember this was published in 1939 and how many Jews went to their deaths with no gravestone as a marker?

A termagant.

His ideal was declared valid.  The eternal barracks.  A country in uniform.  a nation standing to attention, set in line with what was lowest.  He gathered up the husks of ruined truths and had changed them into glittering goods for mass consumption.

That last line could be attached to so much oratory, by so many politicians.

And for Manja Meirowitz a little Jewess girl, there is no escape.  Her mother is an alcoholic and has been with men for money.

Manja went to the table, carried away the brandy bottle and opened the window.  a patch of sunshine lay on the floor but it looked like a puddle of broken eggs.  Only then did she go to her mother.  "Has something happened?"

Manja sat down and waited beside the little birch swaying with delicate naked branches gently in the wind.  No longer waiting for her friends.  Not for any special thing.  Waiting for something bright and decisive, which would detain and halt her fate.  It did not come.

There are many rich character studies in Manja.  I would say the first two thirds of the story is stronger than the last third, but still it is a very good read.


1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your synopsis of this book but I did not like the book. It made my heart heavy and dull. Maybe it was the mood I was in when I read it.


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