The voice of Nazi Germany, in Hebrew cabaret
In a risky and audacious work, set in Nazi-era Germany, and told from a German point of view, Hagar Yanai creates a new Hebrew that is itself a form of cabaret, dolled up and dripping in cheap, heavy perfume
Makom Batuah Balev
(A Safe Place for the Heart), by Hagar Yanai. Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan (Hebrew), 302 pages, NIS 89
Stories about Nazi Germany from a German point of view are something that has occupied the local literary imagination for several years now. The most prominent examples of books released here in translation are Jonathan Littell’s “The Kindly Ones,” Hans Fallada’s “Alone in Berlin” and Holocaust survivor Edgar Hilsenrath’s “The Nazi and the Barber.” But there is also the novel by Israeli writer Nir Baram, “Good People” (Am Oved, 2010, due for publication in English later this year).
All these works were critical and commercial successes, and their near-simultaneous appearance, together with their warm reception, is evidence of the unfettered creativity of the authors and the growing openness of readers, as well as the ability of literary tools to contend with historic, ethical and political challenges.
The plot resources available to such books are rich in obvious promise. History supplies the tragic and even grandiose drama of the sharp shift from pride to fall, and hedonism to horror, almost in the blink of an eye. The German point of view is a literary choice that assures this seesaw movement, and along with it, a mesmerizing and effective manipulation of readers.
Hagar Yanai’s “Makom Batuah Balev,” which is set in 1938, now joins the list. It is different from its predecessors if only in that it focuses on a woman: Leni Mornau, a beautiful and admired cabaret singer who is experienced, sober and libidinous. Her stage name is Frau Black Swan and the book is her diary, a long letter to her Jewish lover Nathan, a shy and sensitive waiter who wins her heart and also destroys her.
In her letter, she tells him the story of her passionate affairs: with a bourgeois Jewish writer who refuses to believe his world is collapsing; an attractive Hollywood film producer who makes her promises he has no intention of delivering on; and an influential German baron who offers her a life of luxury. Now aging and abandoned, she clings desperately to the narcissistic promise of her youth, making her way to the life she deserves by seducing and ruining men, following a path parallel to the ideological passion of her homeland.
But somehow it is Nathan, a Polish-Jewish immigrant who arrives in Germany at the worst possible moment, who arouses her most romantic fantasy of a passion of mythic proportions. She fantasizes about the Jewish body: “You haven’t got any land,” she says to Nathan. “You wanderers cannot build the paradise you so desire on a plot of land. Your only possession is your body. Your paradise is there, and I want to join you!” In this choice, however, she parts ways with her Nazi environment: Both want to take ownership of paradise, but the map of history divides the pure collective passion of hatred from the tawdry and physical individual passion of love.
The theatrical encounter of the tantalizing and lust-filled underside of the cabarets in Berlin’s dark alleys with the violence taking place around them was bound to become vulgar and pretentious. But even though the novel is powered by cheap sensationalism, and it sometimes seems that the book, as well as its protagonist, are out of control in their whorish get-ups, it does indeed rise above sensation. Rather, it exploits it wisely for literary and ethical purposes. And it does so, first and foremost, with language − with Hebrew.
Dolled up and pampered
Yanai creates a new Hebrew that is itself a cabaret: dolled up and pampered, playful, bursting with laughter, dense and sensual, rich and thick like cheap, heavy perfume. It is demonstrably romantic; and after all, the new Hebrew literature was born into the same late-19th-century romanticism that later supported the Nazi aesthetic. The new Hebrew was born into a world rife with grandiose metaphysical gestures that sought to describe and understand the human soul in a liberated, spontaneous and original way, without constraints or censorship − far from ecclesiastical chains that placed obstacles in its way. It was against the backdrop of and from within this wild movement that Micha Berdichevsky, Yosef Brenner and I. L. Peretz wrote Hebrew literature.
In her impudent way, Yanai returns to Hebrew literature’s romantic roots, blending a world taken from soap opera and cheap romantic novels with contemporary melodramatic skill.
Within this world of passion and death, Yanai doesn’t hesitate to offer us powerfully kitschy cliches; like her protagonist, she is committed to them with a passion that knows no shame. One recurring example is a couple making love with abandon while horrors take place outside their room. “The world beat the drums of war,” she writes, “friends were deported to an unknown hell, and we floated on the translucent ocean of time. We might have spent years on the single island of one of my ears, the lagoon in which the arches of my buttocks curved into the small of my back and were swallowed up, the velvety meadow of a piece of my flesh on the inside of my arm.”
Does this example − one of the more moderate and modest ones − express bad taste or a brave romantic commitment? The novel swings wildly between these poles with defiance and recklessness. It describes a world in which nothing is certain in life: not feeling, passion or lust, and not people’s lives either.
Frau Black Swan believes that only the love felt by two people can serve as an anchor in stormy seas. This anchor is emotional and erotic, but also moral. Romantic, impossible love is a wild flower: useless, liberated and free − including free from racism and discrimination − and in its purity it conquers all obstacles.
But love is by nature selfish, arrogant and deceitful. It causes believers to trust in it, to view it as a weapon with which one can overcome one’s own biography and that of the community. The weakness of love is the novel’s tragic focus. The protagonist loses her mind because of an excess of love and courage, against the backdrop of a nation that has lost its mind because of an excess of hate and fear.
Night of Broken Glass
The most important scene in the novel takes place on Kristallnacht, November 11, 1938, the Night of Broken Glass, when Jews were attacked in coordinated pogroms in Germany and Austria: Nearly 100 Jews were killed and tens of thousands sent to concentration camps. Frau Black Swan appears on stage that night, and gives free rein to her sexuality. She seeks to overcome what is going on outside with her passion, to win the sense of emotional autonomy and freedom that only the act of sex can offer.
The long scene is excessive; the heroine crosses all the boundaries of good taste into the realm of pornographic exploitation, and the novel crosses them with her. This is the moment when I became uncomfortable; and though the novel led to this point, in general, it successfully walks a tightrope in dealing with the relationship between passion and history, only sometimes falling into the abyss of manipulative gimmickry.
As literature, “A Safe Place for the Heart” is anything but a safe place, but it is admirable for its tenacity, daring and language. It is hard to remain indifferent to this novel. Some will be captivated by its savagery, its naked emotions and lack of inhibitions, while others will say that it is an off-putting combination of pretension and cheap fiction. The book actually crosses these polar responses and toys with them. Like the protagonist it depicts, it is also devoted to desire that is likely to be embarrassing in the extreme, but will nevertheless fire up our blood and imaginations.
Literary critic Omri Herzog is a regular contributor to Haaretz Books.