Reviewed by Rosamund Hunter
Crafted by one of Germany’s most acclaimed contemporary novelists, Portrait of the Mother As a Young Woman is a single-sentence long, and its 100-odd pages chart a young German woman’s inner monologue. This might suggest tedium and muddle. But not in the hands of Friedrich Christian Delius, who confirms his facility with experimental form and skillfully creates a varied and textured experience for the reader by embracing the psychological complexity of his protagonist, Margherita, a Nazi supporter in Italy during World War II. In an elegant translation by Jamie Bulloch, the novel reads as stream of consciousness, although it’s told in the third person, a fact that highlights the naivety and contradictions in Margherita’s thoughts. The drama is grounded in her struggle to reconcile her feelings on the war, her husband’s deployment to North Africa, and her life as a foreigner in Italy.
Margherita’s thoughts are unguarded and genuine; entering into her mind we come to know her chiefly as fragile and earnest. Truth-telling works on a couple of levels in the book. While the book is undeniably a work of historical fiction, Delius has inserted unmistakable autobiographical resonances. We can only assume that the portrait of Margherita, who is pregnant when we first meet her, is also to some extent a portrait of Delius’s own mother, a German woman who gave birth to the author in Rome in 1943. Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman unfolds as Margherita strolls through Rome on a January afternoon. As she makes her way to a Bach concert, Delius’s vivid and careful description allows us to visualize her world: a foreign woman in a foreign land, a place “full of hieroglyphics and puzzles that bewildered her.” Each walk feels like a “sea which she had to cross, checked by the fear of all those things unknown.” Having moved from a small town in Germany to Rome only days before her injured husband was unexpectedly deployed to Tunis, she suddenly feels vulnerable and isolated. After a man gropes her on a bus in Rome, her fear of Italians swells and keeps her away from crowds and ensconced in solitude, walking alone whenever possible.
She is nonetheless grateful to be in Rome, confident that “no bombs would fall” since “the English would not raze the Eternal City and the center of Christendom to the ground, neither would the Americans.” Delius’s Rome may at times be “sunny,” against the historical odds, yet it is possessed of the unsettling tranquility of a subdued and war-weary city. Beleaguered by loss and strict rations, the landscape stands in contrast to the awe-inspiring beauty and majesty of Roman architecture. Everyone is waiting—not only to move on from war but to resume the freedoms that fascism has expunged.
Margherita’s inner struggle with the Reich is sometimes startling, as when, for instance, she shuttles between her admiration of Adolf Hitler and Martin Luther, two men who have trod down opposite paths in historical memory. Margherita has internalized wartime propaganda, and she tries not to question Nazism since challenging it is to wish harm on her husband and homeland. Still, inevitably, there are moments of doubt. In a particularly bold moment, she admits the difficulty in accepting that Hitler places himself above the will of God, and—so committed to her faith as well as country—experiences a “daily conflict between the cross of the Church and the crooked cross of the swastika.” And yet Delius composes a text in which such confessions are largely absent, revealing just how little his protagonist is prepared to think critically about Hitler and the Reich. In her avoidance, she protects a hopeful yet delusional vision for her family’s future and innocence.
The success of the novel lies in its effort to consider the teetering agency of common people during wartime and what it means to be complicit in atrocity. Delius skillfully illustrates the sinister repression facing ordinary Germans and Italians and a practical fear of dissent. Margherita’s psyche reflects this fear, and when she wonders “just for a second” why it is “necessary to hate” the enemy, she immediately feels “guilty, confused, and horrified.” Without justifying her silence, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman challenges its readers to wonder the same thing. It offers no clear answer and makes no apology. But through a resolutely empathetic portrait, Delius gently nudges us toward recognizing the humanity of our enemies.
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