The Pieces from Berlin
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The Pieces from Berlin
Michael Pye
Alfred A. Knopf, New York (USA), 2003 (2003)
335 pages, including notes on sources

What is with that laconic language that has taken over the contemporary American novel? I am not sure I understand where that need comes from. As a style, it may make sense for an journalistic article, a review or even an essay, but one misses the lyricism of days past that has been replaced with short sentences and an objective approach. There are times when the description of some deeply emotional moment could very well pass for the notes of a psychologist observing his patient. Compare, for example, the following notes on how Lucia and Hans Peter Müller meet and fall in love:

He helped her on the ski lift, which was a hook on a cable on a wire. Then he helped her on the snow. She didn't need to be touched; she balanced exactly, flung herself down slopes with no fear at all. He followed, overtook, turned in and out of her path without flurrying her, danced an arcing, whispering dance around her.

The snow was still wonderfully empty in those days. You felt you had come out into a wilderness, not a playground. At lunchtime, skis racked against a rope, poles jammed in the snow like a strong metallic bush, you looked out onto unmarked white.

She was entirely dazzled. She laughed hugely.

(p. 32)

... with this paragraph taken from the beginning of chapter 1 from Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens:

I give Pirrip as my father's family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister -- Mrs Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father's, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, "Also Georgiana Wife of the Above", I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine -- who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle -- I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers- pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.

Sure, I understand it is not completely fair to compare Michael Pye to one of the greatest writers in the English language, but what I am interested in pointing out is the enormous difference in the style. The first one is cold, descriptive, objective in the worst sense of the word, perhaps due to the excessive use of short sentences, a preponderance of verbs and nouns over adjectives, in spite of the fact that it is presenting us with the ecstatic birth of love between a woman and a man. Dickens' paragraph, on the other hand, has cadence, musicality, long sentences with plenty of punctuation, adjectives and clarifications that come to enrich our knowledge of the character's background. Let us not even talk about how one can hardly come across a single paragraph with more than a bunch of sentences these days, to the point that at times there are entire paragraphs that consist of a single sentence. It nearly seems as if writers these days are too afraid of causing boredom by using too many words, and take refuge in short phrases and paragraphs that can be read quickly and do not look too imposing on the page of the book.

So, why is this? When did this trend begin? I suppose it is one of those mysteries I will have to disentangle as I become more and more familiar with American literature.

It would not be fair to conclude from these words that The Pieces from Berlin is a bad book. On the contrary, it is an enjoyable book (at least once we get past all the introductory pages and get to read about Lucia's life in Berlin) that also contains some fragments of personal wisdom, the very human type of wisdom that one learns from older people and their stories. Michael Pye does present us Lucia's opportunistic behavior during the war as morally repugnant, but manages at the same time to avoid easy portraits in black and white. His characters (even the "good" ones) are real, made of flesh, doubts, hidden secrets, betrayals, hopes, dreams... far from the cartoonish heroes and villains we are used to these days in action movies and written for Hollywood best-sellers.

The Pieces from Berlin examines the shady wrongdoings of Lucia Müller-Rossi, an Italian woman born to a well-to-be family from Milan who marries Hans Peter Müller, a Swiss banker, to form an empty, monotonous, boring marriage that fails to satisfy an ambitious cosmopolitan woman such as herself. Even their first night of married life falls short of her expectations:

The night they married was also the first night they made love. Lucia remembered so clearly how she anticipated glory at last, and what she got was comfort, which was nowhere near enough.

Müller surrounded her body with his, was infinitely patient, was considerate and gentle, was absorbed in her beauty, which was, in the circumstances, of very little interest to her. She wanted to be shocked and excited, but he was always waiting for her.

She had every reason to resent him. He remained such a ruthlessly kind man. She woke up beside him, and he was kind. She drank coffee with someone sweet and generous. And when he finally walked down the garden path to go to work, checking the five flowering shrubs, then she'd go deep into the house, the inner rooms, and she learned to bellow into the corners without making a sound, her face red, her cheeks out, not even the sound of breathing.

(p. 33)

Soon enough she starts an affair with a neighbor who is always referred to in the book somehow comically as "Herr Doktor Professor". Not long after Lucia's first child (Nicholas) is born, the war starts and her husband is called to serve in the Swiss army. She is left alone in Zurich, with a child, with no source of income, without any hope of living anything but a boring, bourgeois life and, thanks to her lover's connections in Germany, decides to flee the country and go live in Berlin. Personally, I do not think it makes much sense that she left for Germany instead of going back to Italy, for example. However, I must admit that perhaps a vibrant city life could have attracted an ambitious woman such as Lucia. After all, Berlin in 1939 must have felt like the center of the hurricane. Pye goes to tell us how they lived in Berlin, how they suffered from the bombings and the wreckage of a whole city, but also how Lucia takes advantage of her sexuality to obtain favors from men, how she quite often abandons Nicholas in their apartment at night so she can go out and enjoy life with her lovers and friends. Lucia in Berlin is a happy woman, self-fulfilled, loving the attention of men, loving the pleasures of life, the parties, dances, restaurants... and ignoring everything else that is going on around her, not the least the plight of the Jews who are persecuted by the Nazis and who are slowly stripped down of every single element of human pride in front of a passive society that, like Lucia, is too busy enjoying itself, basking in the wealth and vitality reached after so many years of economic crisis and social decadence. We do have the feeling that something is not right, especially when Lucia and Nicholas flee Germany close to the end of the war leading a caravan of several trucks loaded with goods whose origin nobody knows. Yet, in spite of the suspicions, we are not able to grasp exactly what is wrong with the whole picture. In a masterful stroke, Pye portrays those years from Nicholas' perspective, the eyes of a little boy who feels that things are not quite right but cannot truly put his finger on it. It is not after many years later, when Nicholas is already an adult with a daughter and a grandson, when Lucia is an old woman in her nineties who owns an antique shop, that all the clues and suspicions converge together into the central event of the book:

Among the steady people, in front of the parade of windows, a woman had stopped

The wind was too bitter for anyone to stand still so long. The woman was looking into a shop window. She was very old, wrapped often and deeply in scarves and down.

She was crying.

She didn't touch her face. She let the tears run, and she held her shoulders straight, her body remembering the manners it had been taught.

(pp. 97-98)

A woman, Sarah Freeman, has just recognized an old table that she used to own during a previous life, when she was married to a Jewish man in Berlin. This is the trigger that causes Lucia's secret to unravel throughout the rest of the book. It turns out that during her years in Berlin she had been accepting furniture and all sort of goods that Jews could not keep anymore and that were given to her with the hope that sooner or later they would be returned after the war. But Lucia knew very well about the fate that awaited those Jews, and she knew when she accepted their goods, just as she knew when she took them back to Switzerland with her and set up shop. Lucia did not murder those Jews, but did profit from their murder all the same and she knew what she was doing. She cannot claim ignorance, especially when she was so involved with high Nazi officials during her crazy years in Berlin which, incidentally, also made her the ideal person to keep the goods safe thanks to her influential friends. Now Sarah is in Switzerland on a trip, and accidentally finds her old table in the window of an antique shop. Even worse, Helen, Lucia's grand-daughter, is a witness. Lucia's lies fall apart.

From this moment on, the book is the story of how the different characters deal with the horrible truth behind Lucia's business success. We learn how Nicholas, although truly not being privy to the secret, had always suspected something and had never bothered to investigate. He always preferred to look in a different direction, as if by doing that his mother's horrible acts could go away. In this sense, he behaves just like the Swiss society itself, where everybody knows but nobody wants to unearth the disquieting stories of their past. Helen somehow symbolizes the newer generation, the one full of moral outrage at their parents' crimes and passivity towards Nazism, but also the one that never had to make the tough choices their parents could not avoid, the one that grew up in a civilized, pacific, comfortable world where one could afford to ponder moral questions. Sarah is asked to fight, to struggle once more, to remember painful memories, to stir up things that most people just want to forget, and all that at her old age. Peter Clarke, a British senior who is also staying in the same hotel as Sarah, is sincerely interested in helping her, and truly wants to believe in his own morality because at least he was on the right side during the war, but then he is fully aware he did not accomplish anything and was also an accidental hero, a big lie too, a prisoner of war who had not done enough to fight evil either.

All this time, he had been in an old brick factory, in an office, at a wide desk with a German officer, some French and some British prisoners, all sorting and filing. He'd been an obvious choice for listing and organizing, because he was bright and he wrote neatly. He had worked in an office, then found himself fighting for a while, then he was back in an office.

(p. 144)

Nicholas tells Clarke about their suffering in Berlin, which uncovers the other side of the war.

But Clarke wasn't happy with the notion that such shared knowledge made them equivalent; that was clear. He wanted to listen, but he knew those were his planes, his side raining bombs down on Berlin, for all the right reasons; and those were alien machines in the sky over his village, murderers with wings.

(p. 171)

But it gets worse...

He so much wanted to be on Sarah's side, to do something that was impeccably right and just and good after a whole long life of equivocation. He didn't want the issues to turn subtle on him. He wanted to keep his great advantage over these people who had been in Berlin in the war. And each anecdote was spoiling his certainty: of being on one side, of opposing the other. It reminded him of that Christian burden of forgiveness. It loaded his mind with questions that gave the enemy enough time to get away: questions like, What would I have done in their place?

(p. 188)

But what about Lucia? Lucia Müller-Rossi does not come across as a very sympathetic figure, but that is no obstacle to portray her in a simplistic way either. She did wrong, and she knows that much. It is clear she did not only intend to protect her son in a Berlin torn by the war, but she did what she did mainly because she enjoyed the good life. She was ambitious, and the chaotic situation of the war brought about the chance of her life. She was not about to let it go in the name of some ethical principles that no one knew if could be applied anymore after so much destruction. Lucia too has to live with her own choices, and she will never be able to rest comfortably with her own memories. She does not tell us her story until the end of the book, and even then it is not clear if she does it so that she can die in peace or just due to her own senility. How could she give up her dreams of an independent life, her own business?

"We'd like just a little more. We can pick up the male Jews easily enough because every decent German male is in a uniform, so the ones who aren't get checked on the street. We can't pick up the women so easily."

Hans has an envelope, a thick envelope on his desk. "A laisser passer and an authorization for fuel and trucks. You help us, we help you."

(p. 330)

Altogether, The Pieces from Berlin is a multi-faceted book that manages to handle the complexity of moral issues without reneging from a clear condemn of immoral behavior. We see the events from within the different people involved in it, and learn to sympathize with their struggle, their problems, their guilt. In this sense, the book does what any good novel should do: it shows us the world from a different perspective, and perhaps one that we would not especially like to see things from. Sometimes I wish many commentators of our age had the capability, so clearly portrayed in Pye's novel, to speak up against immoral acts without taking pleasure in destroying the sinner's life. Sadly enough, it does not appear to be easy to distinguish between moralizing and moral integrity.

Entertainment factor: 6/10
Artistic factor: 6/10