The novel, Magnus, by Sylvie Germain (translated from the French by Christine Donougher) is one of those little literary gems that you might never have heard of but is well worth discovering and should have a much wider audience. It has won a number of awards (or has been shortlisted for prizes) including one that is chosen by high school students between 15-18 years of age in France. I can see the wide appeal for the story. It is a novel about WWII but not like any other that I have read before. The story is about identity and memory, neither of which is really very accurate, and the weight of guilt and the burdens of culpability that are carried down from one generation to the next.
The story of Magnus is told in fragments. Inserted between the fragments are bits of stories, poems, notes on people and events, all very relevant to the unraveling of the mystery of the identity of a young boy who survives the war along with his parents, yet is orphaned soon after and must come to grips with the realization and shame that they were not who he thought they were and that he, by chance and by choice, is as much a victim of the war as his parents were perpetrators.
The fragmentary nature of the storytelling is the perfect mode in which to roll out this story. It is aptly called a mosaic with each new shiny little piece inserted, not all the same color or shape or even identifiable by where it originally came from yet creating a picture or telling the story. Magnus is the name of the teddy bear that belongs to the narrator, who at the start of the story is only a boy called Franz Georg. Named for his two dead uncles who died in the previous war, the boy's bear is the one lone constant in his life, which as he learns of and begins to understand the role his parents, in particular his father, played in the war begins to take on a new and different persona with each new revelation. Magnus is the name sewn on to the bear, which is the one item the boy held in his hand when he was found by The Dunkeltal roaming the ruins in the aftermath of a bombarded city.
"Magnus is a medium-sized bear with a rather worn coat of light-brown fur turned slightly orange in places. A faint smell of scorching emanates from him."
"His ears are made of two large circles cut out of a piece of soft leather. They have the reddish-brown color and smooth shiny appearance of chestnuts. One is intact, and the other half burned away. An oval is cut out of the same piece of leather trims the end of each of his paws. His nose consists of strands of black wool closely stitched into the same of a ball."
"His eyes are unusual, with the same shape and of the same gleaming gold as the buttercup flower, giving him an expression of gentleness and amazement."
Magnus will follow Franz Georg through the story and through every iteration of the boy as he grows up and begins to understand who he is and what his circumstances are and as his identity changes. It is a journey he must undertake, both literally and figuratively as he tries to understand his history and the culpability associated with his parents. With each new revelation comes the feelings of blame and guilt. The journey begins at the very end of the war as he and his mother and father must wander through the destruction of the German countryside and the hordes of other distraught people.
Franz Georg becomes Adam becomes Magnus. He is an orphan who loses not only his parents but his country and his name. His identity becomes befuddled. He loses his innocence. His journeying, his searching, is like a wandering through the desert (actually, it literally is). If he finds enlightenment or truth, they come at a very high cost. "This is a story that eludes all telling." No surer words were ever spoken when it comes to a story like this one.
Writing about this story eludes me a little bit, too. It is a story so strange yet so eloquently told. I was a little apprehensive at first by its fragmentary nature, but not a dozen pages in and I knew I was in the hands of a master storyteller. You know how you can fall into a story and just know it is Good. Really Good. Without being able to explain exactly why? This is that sort of story.
Many thanks to Caroline for selecting this novel for her Literature and War Readalong. You can read her (also very praiseworthy) thoughts on the story here--do go over and read her post since she explains the story so much better than I have been able to. Next up (for later this month) is Czech writer, Bohumil Hrabal's Closely Watched Trains, which is also a WWII novel, also with a postwar setting. It is a slender book of less than 100 pages so hopefully manageable in the last couple of weeks of March.