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My Berlin Child
translated by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions ($15)
by Derek M. Jackson
Each story has its appropriate storyteller. When it came time to tell the story of Claire Mauriac, the task fell to her daughter, Anne Wiazemsky, and the result is My Berlin Child. Focusing on a turbulent, pivotal time in Claire's life, the book spans from 1944 to 1947, from the closing years of World War II to the birth of her first child in post-war Berlin.
Wiazemsky wastes no time in setting the stage. Immediately we are told Claire is an ambulance driver who has courageously served the French Red Cross for the past year and a half, and who just happens to be the daughter of award-winning author Francois Mauriac. By way of subtle implication, there is an element of tension established between Claire and her affluent, traditional Parisian family. She feels passionately that what she is doing is right, but her family feels otherwise. Early on, as Claire weighs a decision to continue her service after the war, Wiazemsky introduces narrative devices that will be appear again and again: Claire's diary entries and written correspondence.
This skillful blend of modes helps My Berlin Child develop into a rich, compelling story. Each narrative device serves as a different lens through which to view the unfolding drama (and there is drama, to be sure), and the alternation between them propels the story forward.
In the diary entries, Claire expresses what cannot be said outright to her parents, co-workers, and lovers. Each entry sheds light on the complexities of relationships and communication—on what is said versus what is felt or thought but left unsaid. Reflexive readers will find themselves pondering this issue, questioning themselves in their own lives. That a fictionalized World War II memoir can evoke this universal issue is certainly a feather in Wiazemsky's cap.
Claire's personal growth and development seems most evident in her letters to her parents, which she copies for posterity into her diary. Though always feeling the need to justify her choices, she becomes increasingly confident—more assertive and direct, less censorial—as she writes of the hazards of her chosen occupation and relates the trying events of her days and nights to her reserved, bourgeois family.
The present narrative, essentially Wiazemsky's voice in the matter, inserts what even Claire does not or cannot write herself in her diary. It illuminates her life as it is lived, what Wiazemsky dubs “a life in the present,” and documents Claire's search for a meaningful life, away from the comfort and complacency of her past Parisian existence.
Wiazemsky may be the titular “Berlin child,” but this is not the only reason the book is so successful. Add to the mix Wiazemsky's experience as a professional actress, responsible for understanding and interpreting the nuances of human behavior and the subtleties of the human psyche. In addition, she was married to prominent French filmmaker and intellectual Jean-Luc Godard, and experienced first-hand both the benefits and the trials of living in the shadow of notoriety. Lastly, and arguably most importantly, since 1988, Wiazemsky has written four award-winning novels.
It is not Wiazemsky's “credentials,” though, that make the book a success, but her approach to telling the story of My Berlin Child. What could have easily been presented in conventionally dry, chronological reportage, Wiazemsky brings to life by approaching her family history in an effectively nuanced, layered way. Not only a story written by the appropriate storyteller, My Berlin Child is a story appropriately told.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011