Katja Petrowskaja’s first novel
A Mosaic of Memories

Katja Petrowskaja; © Susanne Schleyer/Suhrkamp Verlag
Katja Petrowskaja | Photo (detail): © Susanne Schleyer/Suhrkamp Verlag

An incredible family history told in breathtakingly beautiful prose: in her debut novel “Vielleicht Esther” Katja Petrowskaja paints a tableau embracing figures from a whole century.

How can this huge amount of information be condensed into a literary form that makes reading even the saddest passages wondrously easy? One way to do it is to use the deliberate form which Katja Petrowskaja, born in Kiev in 1970, has chosen for her autobiographical book Vielleicht Esther. Instead of a broad narrative sweep, the author opted to present each of the numerous chapters as a prose miniature. This results in a mosaic of memories which not only enables readers to take a melancholic look at their own life histories, but also draws them deep into the bygone world captured here between the covers of a book.

Family links from Vienna to Odessa

Our life histories are unavoidably bound up with those of our parents, which is why one half of Vielleicht Esther can be ascribed to the maternal line of the author’s family and the other to the paternal line. Katja Petrowskaja’s great-grandparents were teachers of deaf-mute children, who made their way to Kiev, originally from Vienna and then by way of Warsaw. Later they had to flee that city in the turmoil of the Second World War. Another strand of the extensive family extends to the Black Sea, more precisely to Odessa, where a mysterious great-uncle made a failed attempt on the life of the German embassy attaché, one year before Hitler’s accession to power. Katja Petrowskaja’s sources are different family narratives, the threads of which she pulls together, filling in gaps to whatever extent possible. While doing the research for her book she understood numerous trips – to Warsaw, to Kiev of course, to archives in Berlin and Moscow and to the Mauthausen concentration camp in which her grandfather was interned. Her experiences during these trips were striking, as she puts it in her book: “Germany is crumbling and becoming increasingly volatile. The snippets stick to my clothes, fall into the keyboard. I carry this year around with me, spread it out, scatter this golden inventory in the air, at the heart of Berlin, in autumn, and take it home with me.”

A country before a crucial test

Vielleicht Esther is being published at a moment in time in 2014 that is as politically explosive as it is delicate. Current events in Ukraine and the struggle for power over Crimea also stand for the division of a country that is situated not quite in the East, but also not quite in the West. Perhaps this also explains the convoluted path that Katja Petrowskaja’s prose took before finally appearing in book form. She is a Ukrainian with Jewish roots who moved to Berlin in 1999, and she is the first member of her family to learn German. Soon she was even writing her reportages in German, and one of the most moving of them, Spaziergang in Babij Jar, published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2011, can be re-read as part of Vielleicht Esther.

Two reportages and a novel

That this sensitive reportage should fit so smoothly into Vielleicht Esther has to do with the novel’s literary-documentary character: issues of genre or format are of only subordinate importance here. It is more a personal biography which – in the service of imparting knowledge – takes on a supra-personal character. The result is that the question of fact or fiction is no longer relevant. What does having to live with the thought of murdered family members mean for one’s own life? Of what consequence is it for one’s perception of self when a state like the Soviet Union turns ever more progressively to the future in the 1980s, yet suppresses the memory of the Jewish victims of National Socialist and concentrates instead on celebrating war heroes?

Reconciliation through language

Katja Petrowskaja has always emphasised how important it was for her to write her manuscript in German. When being presented with the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize 2013 she used the following words: “The German language was like liberation for me.” After all, it eschews a Russian-dominated discourse and thus enables her to take a distanced stance on the stuff of her narrative, something that is both politically and personally helpful. Vielleicht Esther lays the foundations for a new way of speaking about history. German is not the language of the perpetrators, as so often in the past, it is a tool for untroubled and unprejudiced communication. In it Katja Petrowskaja also writes a successful story of reconciliation – reconciliation through language.

Katja Petrowskaja was born in Kiev in 1970. After literary and Slavic studies in Tartu (Estonia) she received her doctorate from the University of Moscow. She and her German husband have lived in Berlin since 1999. She works as a journalist both for Russian and for German media like the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”. She was awarded the 2013 Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for her novel “Vielleicht Esther”.