A cantata is a musical composition typically composed of solos, duets, and other forms for voice, sung with instrumental accompaniment. Thus framed, the title of Jeffrey Lewis’s latest novel, “Berlin Cantata” (Haus, $15, ISBN 978-1-907822-43-8), aligns nicely with the book’s structure, since nearly every chapter is presented as a monologue voiced by one of 13 characters.
The book’s narrative present takes place in the early 1990s, in the city and environs of Berlin, with a considerable focus on a certain house in the country. But if the city’s Third Reich history continues to influence the lives of Lewis’s characters many decades later, so does the postwar and recent Cold War past, with an emphasis on the legacy of East German communism.
Again, the chief linking element is the country house, whose ownership shifted from Jews to Nazis to Communists, who utilized it as an East German Writers Union retreat. The tale that Lewis spins therefore involves layers of possession and reclamation, with a chain of events set in motion by Holly Anholt, the American daughter of the house’s pre-Holocaust Jewish owners. This plot raises a mix of moral questions. Whose claims and rights trump those of others? Which compromises and tactics are acceptable, and to whom? And what is owed the people who play bit parts in the drama of others’ lives? As one German character, whom we meet fairly late in the book, notes of Holly: “I understand that she wants the whole story. But why? At whose expense?”
Among Berlin Cantata’s most interesting aspects is its inclusion of an oft-neglected population: Jews who continued to live in Europe—and Germany—after the Holocaust. We are reminded, too, of the presence and influence of Jews of Russian/Soviet origin in Berlin. We come face-to-face with the expansion of Jewish life in the city after communism’s collapse. All of this is encapsulated in Holly’s thoughts when she arrives in the city at the conclusion of Yom Kippur: “I was bewildered. A city without Jews that had all these Jews in it, or this many anyway, enough to make a party of plastic cups and wine out of jugs in an apartment that if you squinted might have been on the West Side of Manhattan up by Columbia. Remnant Jews, secret GDR Jews, a few Soviet Jews. Jews who’d fled and come back with the victors, Jews who were lost mandarins now, Jews who’d believed in the universality of man and maybe still did.”
Lewis also impresses with his ability to create distinct voices for each of first-person “soloists,” although some readers may find it challenging to track each character’s identity and history in this intricate matrix, especially with the quick and frequent shifts from one character’s voice to another. One can’t help wishing to hear even more from some of them, even when, as in the case of Dorothea Anholt, the very first character we meet, the plot turns demand certain silences. And who can fail but be caught by the frankness of David Fürst, a Jewish character who doesn’t quite espouse klal yisrael:
“My rough reaction to all the Jews arriving from Russia was, get out of here, this is my turf. Go home, go to Israel, to to New York, what’s wrong with you? Of course, I knew the many reasons why they came here. In Israel you’d have to serve in the army and there were many other inconveniences, including the possibility of being bombed on a bus. America had more restrictive immigration laws and less socialistic political arrangements….To go by our [German] government, it actually wanted its Jews back. Well, it couldn’t have its Jews back, of course, but it could have substitute Jews….My objection was entirely personal. For years I had made a nice living, thank you, being the lonesome Jew in the land of the murderers, describing the hills and valleys, making my accommodations, being ironic like crazy, fitting in, doing well or well enough. These new immigrants were turning me into a commonplace. If things went on like this for ten more years, Berlin would be a normal city, Jew-wise and otherwise.”
In the end, the extent to which the Berlin of Lewis’s novel has become a “normal city” may be one of the most tantalizing questions of all. Certainly, it is a question likely to elicit an array of responses.
Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories, which is a 2012 American Library Association Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding Jewish literature. Web: www.erikadreifus.com