Whittaker Fiction Winner 2009
Joined: 24 May 2007
Location: images of elsewhere
|Posted: Wed Nov 07, 2012 6:22 pm Post subject: INTERPRETERS by Sue Eckstein
by Sue Eckstein
Sue Eckstein and I were at school together – nodding acquaintances, in the same year, but we didn’t know each other well and haven’t met for over thirty years. I only found by reading ‘Interpreters’ that we have far more in common than I ever imagined we had back in the old days. In a way, that’s one of the themes of this book. Children of immigrant parents have common ground that they only come to realise decades later because it’s only with hindsight that certain things become clear. Sue states at the end of the book that this is not autobiography; this is highly fictionalised memoir – and what I found fascinating was picking out the resounding truths that were not the obvious and devastating ones of historical fact regarding the experiences of Europeans in WWII, but the minutiae of everyday life for their children, decades later.
Let me give you an example. When I was little, I was always being told off by school dinner ladies for holding my fork the wrong way up. At home, I was also being told off by my mother for holding my fork the wrong way up – so I learnt to hold it one way up in one environment and the other way up in the other, but which was right and which wrong remained a mystery. In ‘Interpreters’, Julia says: ‘... Miss Pearson, the nursery teacher I had when I was four... made everyone on my table look at the way I held my knife and fork, and then told me to behave like a big girl and eat properly. Even now I can’t do that thing where you mash bits of food onto the back of your fork. And I rarely eat peas. At least not in public.’
I cheered for Julia at this point and knew I was looking at, if not myself, at least someone who’d had exactly the same problems – but also the same joys, like eating squashed fly biscuits off brightly coloured melamine plates. That’s something one assumes all children of our generation did, but I’ve a feeling today’s children only know melamine plates from the Antiques Roadshow, even if they still eat squashed fly biscuits.
‘Interpreters’ is Julia’s story, and it’s also her mother’s story. Julia is vivid, immediate, often angry, forthright, with an adored older brother and a fiercely independent daughter. Julia’s mother on the other hand, holds secrets buried deep in her psyche; secrets of identity, of the past, of trauma, of fear, of unknowing. She hides her past so well that even her name isn’t used, either in Julia’s memory or the novel itself.
This secretive woman is gradually revealed through a series of interviews with a therapist whose role it is to help her to come to terms with and articulate the memories. This therapist strikes me as being well-meaning and no doubt good at her job but also astonishingly ignorant and cack-handed in some of her questioning, due to having no idea – really no idea – of what Julia’s mother has been through; what hundreds of thousands of others like her have also been through. She seems to expect Julia’s mother to be able to come out with pat answers about sides, with ‘something profound and meaningful about the war’. How can she possibly? She didn’t know what was going on. She genuinely didn’t – she couldn’t, not even with an SS man living just down the street, and her father’s occasional rants about Hitler. Children accept things the way they are. They know no different. Afterwards, when they do know, when they learn in the most traumatic and horrendous way possible, what are they supposed to do? How can they begin to deal with it?
The therapist, naively, asks why Julia’s mother appears to have no friends.
‘Friends have to know you... And if they know you – if they know who you are and who you were and what you were – how can they possibly want to be friends with you?’
In complete contrast, Julia’s paternal grandmother, Clara, provides often wince-making comic relief. As Julia says, ‘Going shopping with my grandmother was a kind of mild torture.’ We’re back in peas on the back of the fork territory; I know exactly what this is about. I’ve been there.
Clara hates that her high-flying doctor son has married someone whose heritage she can guess at, so she has no sympathy at all with her daughter-in-law. Clara might make us laugh, but she’s also a monster. Her snide comments are vicious, and when she gives Julia and Max a set of cowboy and Indian costumes, one can almost imagine her chuckling with glee at the result. Her own family is complex. When Julia draws a family tree at school, she’s asked by the teacher, ‘Are you sure that’s right?... But your grandmother’s mother and aunt were twins... And then two of their children married each other.’ I’m glad I never had to draw an accurate family tree at school because my mother’s sister is also her cousin due to their mothers being sisters, and the sister/cousin married an uncle – so again, I know exactly where this is coming from. The corker is Clara’s casual dismissal of the occasional dysfunctional offspring that resulted and didn’t manage to become a world-class doctor or similar: ‘– but don’t bother to write her down.’
Julia’s mother’s side of the family, however, has to be fictionalised for the family tree exercise, as Julia’s mother isn’t saying anything, so Julia makes up a nice sensible and normal English family for her – the sort of thing her friends on her nice, normal suburban estate appear to enjoy.
The heart of the book for me lies in one of the interviews, where Julia’s mother tells her therapist: ‘I sometimes wonder if you really hear anything that I’m saying. Anything at all.’ The words are clear enough, but the experiences are too foreign for the therapist to grasp. She’s an interpreter, but a poor one. It’s not her fault. Certain things are not talked about; are too painful. A child cannot be held guilty for the actions of a country at war, but a child will still take all that guilt upon herself, and the results can be devastating. She then has to decide how best to protect her own children. There are two completely different routes to take. In my own case, my mother felt it essential that my brother and I knew exactly what had happened to her family when she was a child, so I learnt about the horrors of the holocaust at an age when perhaps I should have been protected from such things. It terrified me, and I tried not to think about it too much. My mother’s rationale, then as now, was that such events should be spoken of openly so that mistakes can be learned and history cannot be repeated. Julia’s mother takes the opposite path; she hides the past completely in order to protect her children and herself, but in doing so she condemns herself to the agony of years of mental health problems and the associated barbaric treatment.
Nobody in this book can interpret precisely what anyone else is doing or why. Clara can’t understand why her son married this girl. Julia can’t understand why her father is so remote, or why her brother refuses to conform to expectations – and she certainly can’t understand her own daughter’s decision. And yet Julia is an anthropologist who spends her working life understanding and interpreting other people’s lives and motivations.
How well can we ever know each other, even within our closest family? As Julia says towards the end of the book: ‘People aren’t jigsaws. You can’t just look for missing pieces to slot in and complete the picture.’ She’s right, but as this book progresses, more and more pieces do inevitably slot into place. The disparate stories come together and begin to make sense. By the end, we can understand the whys and the wherefores, and there’s real hope that the protagonists can too.