In the archives of the British Psychoanalytic Society a researcher is examining the notebooks and letters of Joan Riviere – the R of the title. He is drawn to R as a subject precisely because she did not see herself as a subject at all. The historical Riviere was an early follower of Freud who argued that identity was a screen with nothing behind it. What would it be like to perceive yourself as an empty space? How do you write the story of a person without substance? The researcher imagines her early life and describes an England in which the First World War – fought entirely on foreign battlefields – creeps under living room doors and claims R among its millions of casualties.
H stands for Hermann Henselmann. His story is constructed from buildings. Henselmann was an architect banned from practice by the Nazi regime. The researcher walks the streets of Berlin and returns to the 1940s: deportations, aerial bombardment, the advance of the Red Army, and a new boundary between East and West. On the eastern side, H is appointed chief architect for Berlin, but the Central Committee rejects his vision of the new order. H’s private misgivings and eventual resolve are told through the buildings he constructed along the showpiece eastern boulevard, named after Stalin.
The stories of R and H are narrated separated but they come together in the ‘I’ of the title which stands for the writer, the reader, and the different lenses through which we process the world. The book combines history, biography and fiction to explore the psychological and physical impact of the major conflicts that shook Europe in the twentieth century and that reverberate into the present. ‘R.H.I.’ detaches historical events and personal experiences from their familiar framework and allows them to appear in startling new ways.
Victoria University Press, 2015, 205 pp.