Roberta Silman’s engaging and deeply felt novel is a reminder of what it means to carry a historical burden on both a personal and national level.
Secrets and Shadows by Roberta Silman. Campden Hill Books, $24 hardcover, $12 paperback.
By Matt Hanson
Walls of all kinds are coming down as Secrets and Shadows, Roberta Silman’s fourth novel, begins. It’s 1989 and the Berlin Wall is about to be no more. As cheering crowds greet the end of the official partition between West and East, Paul Bertram (formerly Berger), calls his apprehensive ex-wife for the first time in a long time, asking her to accompany him on a journey back to visit the Berlin of his childhood. Eve, who is trying to fight off her lingering love for him and her sorrow for losing the life they once shared, reluctantly agrees. The juxtaposition between political and personal, between the past and the present, sets the plot in motion for a story about the possibility of recovering from the shocks of history and of love.
Despite its slightly portentous title, Secrets and Shadows’ engrossing narrative methodically probes the moral complexities of the relationship between Paul and Eve. Once upon a time they had a long and happy marriage, with successful children, and a vibrantly shared intellectual life. Despite her reservations, Eve loves him still, and we can see why. Paul, a Berliner by birth, is quite a catch: handsome, brilliant, a successful lawyer with exquisite taste in music, literature, and art. But there’s something remote about him at his core, a protective shell that’s hardened over years. Eve accompanies him to Berlin in order to understand what’s behind his emotional repression, thinking that the key may lie in his finally addressing empty spaces in his past.
Eve is nobody’s fool, but there are certain things that can easily be swept aside in an intimate relationship, especially a happy one: “Eve offered nothing that day about his birth and childhood, not because she wanted to evade, but because it didn’t seem important. When you’re happy only the present matters. That’s also true of unhappiness, but Eve had no thoughts of unhappiness then. Nor did she understand how the present spirals into the past, just as the past reaches into the future, so it is all one, coalescing into the moment you are in.”
The moment, personal and historical, in which both Paula and Eve find themselves is simultaneously joyous and turbulent. Silman’s observation of her characters is astute and subtle. Together for the first time in years, the pair still have a firm connection, in the way of all old lovers, but Paul has regrets of his own about how the marriage turned out. Silman’s sense of pacing is agile; she reveals only so much at a time. With the benefit of hindsight, the reader knows slightly more than the characters do about the false promise of this moment in history, as well as a little more about what they are each thinking and feeling than they want to let on to themselves or each other. The novel’s power goes beyond the gracefully sketched life studies of its main characters. As they tentatively offer each other support and reassurance, mostly on Eve’s part, Paul’s past (and the historical context) requires a darker hue through a succession of revelations.
As Paul gradually tells his story, Silman evocatively recreates the feeling of Berlin on the cusp of fascism. This would, I imagine, make any Berliner feel a little angstlich upon returning to their legendary city, but Paul’s family is Jewish. His childhood was inexorably defined by his experience of how a cultivated, civilized society can descend into barbarism, to the point where no one was safe, and few could be trusted. Here is Paul ruminating while he fights off an anxiety attack amid jubilant Berliners:
How different this crowd was from the German mob, which grew more and more oppressive as the war dragged on. Composed of earnest, dull Germans, obedient to a fault, and singularly lacking in humor, that mob had been beaten to a pulp after the First World War and were weighted down by the Treaty of Versailles and the failing Weimar Republic. In the 1930s they were regarded as a people in distress, a people whose past was filled with men of genius, but who were not practiced in the ways of democracy…Who had lost their drive and could not understand the concepts of personal independence and rugged individualism that might help them resist Hitler. Thus, they had seized on his rhetoric and become good Nazis, denying what was happening.
It’s a story that everyone who passes high school history classes learns but is unfortunately forgotten. Of course, Paul remembers, no matter how hard he tries to repress his memories. His nightmarish experience as one of the near-victims of a society seized by hatred and resentment has never left him, and it casts a pall on his most intimate relationships. Paul’s recounting of his family hiding out from Nazis and the collaborators who enable them is appropriately harrowing, revelatory of the moral ambiguities that are an inevitable part of surviving a political catastrophe. (Silman’s evocation of lived experience during wartime reflects a thoroughly researched eye.) I’m not usually one for guessing plot twists in advance, but I was slightly relieved to find out that Paul’s trauma was rooted in something entirely different than what I was expecting. His great mistake, stupid as it was, was triggered by very human pettiness. His lifelong remorse was an enormous burden he’d never expected to carry.
We like to think of ourselves as having the strength to act on our conscience during a crisis, but it’s never going to be that simple. Rule of thumb: the louder people declare their bravery, the less they can be counted on when the time comes. At one point, while Paul describes a family friend who is keeping his family safe, he also registers his disgust at the people around him. “’But we are not to blame,’ they insisted, ‘these were orders from the Führer.’ Then they rehearsed what they would say when they got home: ‘It was you who wanted him, you good German hausfrauen who voted for him, so don’t blame us, we were simply doing our jobs while you scrubbed the floors, polished the brass, and counted pfennings to see us through another war.’”
Secrets and Shadows is the kind of historical novel that starts relatively slowly, but whose deeper concerns are gradually revealed, eventually packing considerable resonance at the end. History isn’t simply the past; it actively informs and shapes our present. Because of our concentration on the passing moment, the past’s effects are invisible — but inescapable. Silman’s engaging and deeply felt novel is a reminder of what it means to carry a historical burden on both a personal and national level — an old lesson we urgently need to learn all over again.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.