Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey

I loved Catherine Chidgey’s lesser known novel The Transformation, more than the award winning debut In a Fishbone Church, so I was curious about and looking forward to her latest novel.

Buchenwald Weimar WWII novel GermanyThough truthfully, I had been avoiding it due to its 522 pages and subject matter, it does require a commitment. 

After reading and enjoying Marzahn, mon amour also set in Germany, I decided why not just remain in the same location, even though Remote Sympathy takes us back to that tragic period in history.

An incredibly accomplished novel, it is told using four narrative strands in different voices, through letters, diaries, recordings and a community reflection,  backed up but never bogged down by a solid foundation of research and testimony.

The fictional story relates to events during the second world war, around the lives of two German families, the citizens of the town of Weimar and the prisoners of Buchenwald, a camp located just up the hill from the town.

The novel demonstrates the responses of people, in different circumstances, showing how they behave and manage their lives, what they choose to acknowledge and to ignore, the lies they tell themselves and others, faced with the extreme conditions of living under the Third Reich (Nazi Germany).

Four Entwined Narratives

Doctor Lenard Weber, the inventor

Anatomy nervous system of manThe novel begins with an epistolary narrative of letters written by Doktor Lenard Weber to his daughter Lotte in Frankfurt 1946, after the war has ended. He is telling his daughter how he first first met her mother, his wife Anna, at an exhibition of ‘The Transparent Man’, an installation that showed the inner circuitry of the human body.

The exhibit further inspired him with his own ideas on the therapeutic uses of electricity and the invention of his Sympathetic Vitaliser, a machine that he believed might heal the body of disease.

But it was the eighteenth century writings of John Hunter, the great Scottish surgeon, that sparked the idea for my machine: his theory that the cure as well as the disease could pass through a person by means of remote sympathy; that the energetic power produced in one part of the body could influence another part some distance away.

However, they were living in dangerous times and at the time of their marriage, neither of them knew their family ancestry would drive them apart and that his invention would draw him into the lives of an SS officer and his wife.

But I wanted to tell you about the miracles, Lotte. There are three in this story – I’ll start with the first.

Frau Greta Hahn, the wife of an SS major

SS officer villas BuchenwaldThe second narrative voice comes from the imaginary diary of Frau Greta Hahn, the younger wife of the officer and begins in 1943 as she is packing up their lives in Munich, to move to a villa in Weimar, her husband having taken over as Administrator of the Buchenwald prison camp. He has told her and their young son Karl-Heinz how much they will love it there, being near a forest, a zoo, close to nature.

‘Taking a child to a place like that,’ said my mother.
‘It’s quite safe,’ I told her; ‘We’ll be living well outside the enclosure. We won’t even be able to see it. Apparently the villa’s beautiful – you can come and stay whenever you like.’

An invitation her mother is loathe to take up, even when Greta becomes very unwell.

Greta chooses to live in denial, unlike her friend and neighbour Emmi, who delights in their newfound circumstances and privilege. Her discomfort turns inward and she finds herself in need of a radical medical intervention.

1000 citizens of Weimar

One of the narrative threads is a third person “we” voice, the collective reflections of one thousand citizens of the town of Weimar. This community is proud of their town’s association with a number of past eminent citizens and love to show visitors Goethe’s garden house in the park, with its bee-filled beds of flowers and to speak of others who had called their town home.

The Goethe oak still stands, though, not far from here – the tree beneath which the poet wrote some of his most celebrated verse, and rested with Charlotte von Stein. They say that if it falls, Germany will also perish…

They hear strange noises, they smell the smoke, they see signs of maltreatment, but for every observation that doesn’t fit with their idealised version of home, they have an excuse, an accusation, an alternative perspective, so loathe are they to admit even the thought of what might be going on up the hill. Anyone who shows concern or empathy is scorned by a cacophony of voices.

Former SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn, the husband, the major

This first person narrative begins in October 1954, a taped, sometimes interrupted interview with the major who is under trial. He talks about the stress of his job, the insistence that it was a work camp, the pressure of budgets, his family and his desire to have a large family. It is the perspective of a man in charge of his responsibilities who refuses to acknowledge any human suffering (except his own).

The lives of the couple and the Doktor become entwined when the major hears of the medical invention and arranges to have him imprisoned in the hope that he may assist his wife. The presence of the Doktor and the young boy Josef who is their housekeeper, challenge her ideas about the so-called ‘criminals’ being held in the camp next door.

Seeking Salvation Through Lies

Though one man represents power and the other is a prisoner, both men possess something that the other desires, they both believe that some kind of salvation might be able to be obtained from the other. Ultimately both will lie, in the hope of getting what they want.

Though ‘remote sympathy’ refers to the healing action of the machine, it is also a theme running through the novel. Greta’s denial of what is occurring over the fence prevents her from confronting the truth, there is little sympathy for something one refuses to see, but she feels it and pays the price, it is literally eating away at her within.

Likewise, her husband obsesses about budgets and cutbacks, without ever acknowledging the human impact, in personal and institutionally narcissistic acts, depriving inmates of basic necessities in order to meet financial pressures. Privately, he succumbs to behaviours that initially alleviate the stress, but will lead to their downfall.

The Consequence of Willful Blindness, Ignorance and Fear

It’s a novel of great discomfort and incredulity, in that it imagines the inner lives and perspectives of an officer, his wife and son, their military family neighbours – it focuses on this more so than it narrates the lives of the prisoners, as most of the story and gaze takes place outside the camp, among the privileged, including the Doktor himself, who has found himself in an enviable yet dangerous position.

The use of letters, diaries, an interview and a reflection create a slight distance between the reader and the narrative, we too become observers, avoiding the discomfort of a first person narrative told in the present. Ironically, the effect of that is to avoid a sense of connection or emotional resonance, recreating that uncomfortable, debilitating situation of being a silent, unobserved witness.

It is a thought provoking, disturbing read that highlights the failings and frailties of humankind, the inclination to look away or make up stories to avoid confronting brutal harsh truths about our own inhumanity and the ease with which people lie in pursuit of a desire, refusing to acknowledge their own culpability or wrongdoing, their harm.

And it is a nod too, to the small tangible things that humans find to create meaning, to restore hope, to get through another day, the wooden remains of an oak tree, a photo, pages from a book, a prayer card.

And On It Goes

It occurred to me at the end, that Claire Keegan’s disturbing novella Small Things Like These addresses a similar issue in relation to the collective blindness of community, in the culpability and denial of the Irish (in families, institutions and villages) in their incarceration of young women and the trafficking of their babies, more crimes against humanity that we are only just beginning to come out of dark ignorance about, to be truthfully acknowledged.

Remote sympathy is everywhere and nowhere.

Remote Sympathy was published in the UK in April 2021 by Europa Editions.

Further Reading

Tanya Hart (daughter of a Holocaust survivor) Interviews Catherine Chidgey

Lisa at ANZLITLover’s review

Catherine Chidgey, Author

Remote Sympathy Germany BuchenwaldCatherine Chidgey is an award-winning and bestselling New Zealand novelist and short-story writer.

Her first novel, In a Fishbone Church, won the Betty Trask Award, and was longlisted for the Orange PrizeGolden Deed was Time Out’s Book of the year, a Best Book in the LA Times Book Review and a Notable Book in the New York Times Book Review. Her fourth novel, The Wish Child (2016) won the 2017 Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize, the country’s major literary prize and Remote Sympathy (2021) was also shortlisted for the same prize.

N.B. Thank you kindly to Europa Editions for providing an ARC (Advance Reader Copy)