Fixated on the Ficus
Updated: May 31, 2021
Review of Maybe Esther
Times Literary Supplement | Book review
“I had thought that telling the story of the few people who happened to be my relatives was all that was needed to conjure up the entire twentieth century.” Katja Petrowskaja came to recognize her naivety, but in Maybe Esther she has nevertheless managed to capture an epoch by tracing the fate of a few individuals.
Seeking out the cities, sites and archives where her ancestors lived, Petrowskaja – born in 1970 to Russian-Jewish parents based in Kyiv – travels from Berlin to Warsaw, Moscow, Mauthausen, Vienna and Ukraine. The story that emerges is extraordinary, and profoundly moving. In 1932, her great-uncle, Judas Stern, attempted to assassinate a German diplomat in Moscow. Some of her relatives died at the hand of the Nazis, and some disappeared in the war, among them Petrowskaja’s grandfather, who returned home to his wife forty-one years after it had ended. One of Petrowskaja’s great-grandfathers founded an orphanage in Warsaw for deaf-mute Jewish children, and teaching deaf-mute people remained the chosen profession of a succession of other family members.
Petrowskaja’s narrative – for which she won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2013 – remains fragmentary, and happily so. Maybe Esther is both an attempt to piece together a family history, and a commentary on the endeavour, vacillating between the tragic and the comically surreal. Often elegiac, it bears comparison with W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Petrowskaja, too, is confronted again and again with reminders of human cruelty and the atrocities of the Nazi era. Like Sebald, she includes photographs, and she is as interested in the mechanics of memory as in her specific family history.
Esther may or may not have been the name of Petrowskaja’s paternal great-grandmother, whom everyone knew solely as Babuschka. In 1941, this great-grandmother was left behind in Kyiv when the rest of her family fled the German occupiers – she had been deemed too old and frail for the journey. Although her neighbours were prepared to hide her, on September 29 she insisted on complying with the Nazi order for all Jews to assemble at a gorge named Babi Yar. It was there, on September 29–30, than more than 30,000 Jews were murdered in one of the most notorious massacres of the war. Petrowskaja’s great-grandmother was not among them, however. For she lost her way and had to ask a German soldier for directions. Petrowskaja imagines the rest: perhaps her great-grandmother had addressed the soldier in Yiddish? Perhaps in German? Maybe she had not been the first to ask for directions that day? She imagines the soldiers simply shooting her Babuschka, “as a careless matter of routine, without the officers interrupting their conversation, without turning around all the way, nonchalantly”. In a striking shift, Petrowskaja then reflects on her own narrative approach to this appalling scene: “I observed this scene like God out of the window of the building across the street. Maybe that’s how people write novels. Or fairy tales . . . . How do I know every detail of this story? Where did I listen to it? Who whispers unwitnessed stories to us, and for what reason?”
Rather than being sources of frustration, the many uncertainties and gaps become core components of Petrowskaja’s story, registering its traumatic nature. Was her uncle, the would-be assassin, mad? Or was he part of a political plan to destabilize Russian–German relations? One of Petrowskaja’s pivotal, if second-hand, memories is of a potted Ficus benjamina, which took up precious space in a lorry that had been sent to evacuate Jewish families from Kyiv in 1941. The neighbours of Petrowskaja’s family had insisted on taking this “symbol of home and hearth” with them, and it was only by resolutely removing the plant that Petrowskaja’s grandfather was able to create enough room for his wife and two sons. In Petrowskaja’s imagination, this abandoned plant played a decisive role in the survival of her family line: “I see the leaves of this ficus, bobbing to the beat of the world events in 1941. I owe my life to this ficus”.
A powerful symbol, and yet: when she studies her father’s written account of the evacuation, she finds that the ficus is missing from the narrative. Distraught, she questions him about its absence, but he cannot remember it: “I was fixated on that ficus, I was ficusated . . . . The ficus strikes me as the main character in the history, if not of the world, then of my family”. A week later, her father offers a tentative reassessment, which proves to be anything but reassuring: “I think I recall a ficus. Maybe I do. Or did I get the ficus from you?”
Katja Petrowskaja, who has lived in Berlin since 1999, and works as a journalist for Russian and German media, wrote Maybe Esther in German, although it is not her native language. Her translator, Shelley Frisch, has preserved the alluring strangeness of her long, paratactic sentences, which meander in perfect harmony with her associative imagination. Notwithstanding the terrible nature of some of the events she records, there is considerable wit, humour and warmth in her intelligent and haunting story.