The History of History by Ida Hattemer-Higgins


A genocidal tyrant, infanticide, suicide and a city that turns into human flesh might seem like scenes from a dystopian science-fiction film, but in The History of History they are the heinous omens in one overriding question: How do we deal with the guilt of the past?

The novel begins with the protagonist – a young American expatriate named Margaret Taub – crawling from a forest near Berlin with apparent amnesia. Her hands are dirty and she is wearing a torn gentleman’s overcoat. Weird.

She returns to her old life and tries to regain the months of memory she has lost, working as a Berlin tour guide, a job that, along with the interference of a strange ‘memory doctor’, eventually leads her into madness.

But amnesia aside, the real catalyst in this decent into lunacy is Margret’s obsession with the oppressed tragedies of Berlin’s Nazi past. She rapidly becomes enthralled in the story of Magda Goebbells, the wife of Hitler’s propaganda minister who died in a double suicide with her husband – not before killing her six children.

As Margaret takes gaggles of tourists around the city, the buildings have sinister new meanings, the streets are filled with suppressed expressions of the Holocaust. Margaret herself becomes more distant and wild-eyed.

The city around her turns into flesh; into mouths, nostrils and ear canals. And the novel descends into a fit of magical-realism. Both the gravity of the ethical issues explored and the tense, hallucinogenic quality of the writing leaves the reader exhausted with the weight of it.

And I suppose that’s the point. How does the modern world deal with the guilt of its own history?

A good analogy for this is the Fuhrerbunker, Hitler’s final hideout which now remains buried beneath a parking lot in Berlin. To draw attention to it would be an insult to the millions who died at the hands of National Socialism, but to ignore it is neglecting to admit to the crimes of the past.

And so it remains buried; a subterranean lair still subject to a decision that’s perhaps too large for humanity. In The History of History, this is the space in which Margret occupies; her madness a portal in which decisions like this try to worm their way back to the surface.

Overall, no questions are answered. The subjects of guilt and oppression are tossed about wildly and the writing, alternating between precision and obscurity, adds to the confusion.

Were it not for the heavy themes and philosophical explorations, the novel would probably be a bit of a mess. In parts it tends to be overambitious and perplexing, at others it reads like a lousy romance, when Margaret’s unsuccessful love-affairs are pondered.

But for anyone with an interest in history and Berlin, the books feels extremely well-researched, giving under-the-radar snatches of the past and interesting facts about the city. And it certainly manages to explore grief and guilt with some success. For a first novel it is determined, although uneven.

Ida Hattemer-Higgins is obviously an intelligent lady and her interest in history comes across strongly and objectively.But still, when the last page has been turned the effect is something like a beating. And I’m not sure whether this is a good thing or not.

The History of History: A Novel of Berlin was published in January by Faber & Faber. Buy it in paperback for £7.79, or for £7.07 for the Kindle version.

Recommended for: Anyone with an interest in twentieth century European history and Berlin.

Other recommended reading: On a similar theme, look into Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, Aimee and Jaguar by Erica Fischer or Night by Elie Wiesel.

Jen Thompson