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lettera da francoforte

4 august 2018

Lettera da Francoforte is an odd book. Generically a novel – the first-person protagonist is named Vera Stein, not Edith Bruck, and she's a painter, not a writer – it reads much like a chapter from Edith Bruck's own life (or at least so the reader is bound to imagine). Part obsessive diary, part Maupassantesque short story, part travelogue, it's a powerfully insistent book. It does not present its Holocaust-survivor narrator as entirely sympathetic: everyone that Vera Stein interacts with, even her devoted husband, gets a bit tired of her incessant clamoring for recognition. Let it go, many of them tell Vera: it's been over half a century since Auschwitz. Of course she doesn't let it go, and of course you don't really want her to. But of course there is no "closure" to such an experience, either. Life goes on, and loss is permanent, and the only resolutions are riddled with ironies.

Vera Stein, a Hungarian Jew who has survived the Lager and the death marches across Germany as a girl and is now a sixtysomething artist in Rome, begins in the mid-1990s to try to acquire a risarcimento, a reparation pension, from the German government. Turned down once, she resumes her attempt in the late 1990s and keeps it up into the new century. As you might imagine, the bureaucratic complications are the novel's inciting events. "Kafkaesque" nails it. Lettera da Francoforte even bears an epigram from Kafka, which, translated from Bruck's Italian, reads

The right way lies along a rope, but it's not strung up high; it's on the ground. It seems to be designed more to trip you up than to allow you to pass.
Every time that Vera Stein sends her birth certificate, her vital statistics, her income statements, her testimony to her Holocaust experiences, the German state finds some way to ask for more information, or more precise information, or the same information all over again from the start. No wonder she is exasperated, and no wonder her family and friends get exasperated with her.

I don't think that Lettera da Francoforte has a very effective structure. It's a short story eked out to the length of a novella. As a result, there's more repetition than needed, and at one point a digression (when Vera and her husband vacation on the island of Ischia) that seems to add little to the plot or theme. The ending is powerful, but it would be just as powerful if it came 120 pages sooner.

But we don't read Edith Bruck to appreciate writerly construction. She is perhaps the last writer alive to witness to the Holocaust, and we read her to fix on paper and in living memory the experiences she underwent. Her characters tell her own story over and over, and it seems to be a story of the same things experienced by so many other survivors, as if they were all alike: "ma uguali non sono affatto" (60), says Vera Stein, they're not really the same at all. It is a story that, especially now, we dare not stop reading.

Bruck, Edith. Lettera da Francoforte. Milano: Mondadori, 2004.