The German Room, by Carla Maliandi

Late in Carla Maliandi’s novel, its nameless protagonist sits in a living room in Heidelberg, ‘one of the few German cities that wasn’t bombed.’ She has been going through boxes of old photographs and papers, and finds a missive, yellowed and with the appearance of having been re-read and re-folded multiple times. It has been sent from a place referred to by its author as ‘the cave’:

The letter is cryptic, as if written in code and with entire sections redacted … Through the blacked out sentences I can just decipher the words “regret”, “hell”, “pass out”.

Its writer closes with an assurance that, although he is unsure where he will be taken next, he and the letter’s recipient will find each other. Our protagonist, knowing that this can never happen, withdraws to the kitchen to wipe her eyes.

The German Room is Argentinian academic and playwright Maliandi’s first novel, and her first work to be translated into English. The letter examined by her protagonist is from 1979, and was written by one of the estimated 30,000 people ‘disappeared’ by the Argentinian military junta. The narrative that contains this scene takes place in the present, and is delivered from the perspective of a character raised in the country’s ‘post-dictatorship’ generation. But the novel, too, is a text framed and pockmarked by disappearance. Told in minimalistic, first-person narration – elegantly translated by Frances Riddle – and set in the present tense, it fuses a confessional directness with a sustained withholding of information; there is pain, and it is deliberately obscured.

For reasons unspecified, the narrator has ejected herself from her own existence in Buenos Aires. Implied to be in her mid-thirties, she has landed in Heidelberg, the city of her birth, directly from the Argentinian capital, where she had a partner, dog and a job. It is a hasty, unplanned retreat to the landscape of her early childhood, and she finds herself wandering, ‘thousands of miles from home, in a place where I barely speak the language, and I don’t know what to do.’ For anyone who has made a similarly deliberate, abrupt, and seemingly rash deviation from the anticipated coordinates of their own life, it will seem comfortingly familiar.

Charco Press, the fine Edinburgh-based publisher responsible for the English-language translation of The German Room (first published as La habitación alemana in 2017), has playfully described the book as ‘a non-coming of age tale.’ Indeed, it seems reasonable to speculate that such narratives may well become a trend, driven by difficult economic conditions and neatly synopsised by our protagonist’s observation that ‘simply returning to your childhood home is not better than having no plan at all.’ The geographic trajectory of this particular ‘homecoming’ is compelling, however, as it echoes not just the greatly varying conditions of human migration, but the curious and occasionally troubling history of urgent flight between both countries.

On her first morning in Heidelberg, Maliandi’s main character leaves her room in the student residence (having feigned plans for further study) and sits in a café on one of the city’s many ‘fairy tale, unreal’ streets – undamaged by Allied air raids. She observes an elderly man with his small dog, and begins to speculate about his wartime experience, before chastising herself for being ‘too quick to judge.’ When Frau Wittmann, the attentive and rather stern building manager, reveals that she was born in Hungary, our heroine briefly calculates her age and considers the possible sequences of the older woman’s life: ‘I think I catch a glimpse of the face she had as a girl, her features round out and the colour rises up from beneath the dusty layers of suffering and joy.’

The narrator’s fellow residents are energetic international students at least ten years younger than her; they chatter to their families on Skype, and readily throw themselves into drunken, fancy-dress karaoke nights. She is instantly and insistently befriended by Miguel Javier, ‘the Tucumano’, a kind, diligent compatriot in Germany on a scholarship; and Shanice, a cheerful exchange student from Tokyo. But our protagonist struggles to relate to the apparent immediacy of their joys and ambitions from her strange, suspended state as ‘a fake student, a solitary tourist, a refugee.’

This final term is apparently used in jest, but it is a condition that haunts the narrative. Maliandi does not refer to it directly, but these musings, along with the narrator’s position of anxious, self-imposed exile, do prompt consideration of the many populations to have traversed that same long curve of Atlantic as a matter of emergency. These include the approximately 43,000 Jewish refugees from Nazism who came to Argentina between 1933 and the end of the Second World War, and – notoriously – from 1946, under the presidency of Juan Domingo Perón, some of Nazi Germany’s most prominent figures, along with several hundred European fascists.

Our heroine may regard the surrounding German cityscape and its elderly residents through the lens of the Second World War, but Maliandi’s tale provides a more direct engagement with conditions that arose in Argentina three decades afterwards. In so doing, it suggests that although geographic distance may provide a means of physical escape, it does not necessarily guarantee insulation from trauma and its perpetrators, or safeguards against fresh horror.

Following a 1976 coup, Argentina’s military government, within a US-backed South American alliance known as Operation Condor, engaged in a heavily orchestrated project of state terrorism (1977–83), as a means of brutally eliminating leftist ‘subversive’ ideas and supporters. As discussed by Ana Ros in her introduction to The Post-Dictatorship Generation in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay: Collective Memory and Cultural Production, the enforced ‘disappearance’ of those branded as ‘dissidents’ by the regime – by way of systemic abduction, torture, rape and murder by the country’s armed forces and state intelligence services – was a crucial characteristic of repression:

… after individuals were abducted, they were taken to a clandestine detention centre … Many of them were sedated and thrown alive from planes into the sea or the Río de la Plata while others were killed and buried in unmarked graves.

This meant that within the space of a single generation, West Germany was confronted with a refugee crisis that flowed in the opposite direction. A fascinating 2018 study by Felix A. Jiminéz Botta into the attitude of the West German government towards Argentinian asylum seekers during this time demonstrates that, in spite of mounting evidence during this period of ‘prisons and secret concentration camps with over 20,000 inmates’, the government of Helmut Schmidt had economic and ideological reasons for supporting the junta, and feared an influx of leftist ‘terrorists’. It took clear displays of electoral support for the West German government to adjust its policies towards Argentinians seeking political asylum, and only seventy-four had been admitted by the time the programme was discontinued after the 1983 collapse of the military junta.

Our heroine’s sudden presence in Heidelberg, fraught with fear and anxiety, has been entirely her choice. In spite of cosseted appearances, however, her journey, and the entire reason she ‘got on a plane with no plan at all’, traces the same one made by her parents before her birth, when they went into exile from the regime. Mario, the recipient of the letter she examines, arrived as a refugee and stayed with her family during that time. Haunted by the state-sponsored murder of his lover, he has never gone back.

Some of the most moving cultural productions relating to ‘the disappeared’ of South America – whether victims of heavily orchestrated state murder, or other types of political and criminal violence – have involved a frank negotiation of such disappearance and the consequent presence of suspended absence. In Biographies (2002), a film work and installation by artist Oscar Muñoz, the artist has filled sinks and screen-printed portraits of Colombia’s ‘disappeared’ in coal dust on the surface of the water. As the water slowly drains, the faces distort, twist, and eventually dissipate. In Argentina, and for the generation immediately preceding Carla Maliandi, memory projects became an important way of commemorating victims of the military junta, particularly as amnesty laws protecting its perpetrators from prosecution were not overturned until 2005. Nicolás Guagnini’s installation, 30,000 (1999–2009), features a picture of his father – a journalist ‘disappeared’ by the junta in 1977 – painted across 25 white rectangular columns. Like a large, sculptural lenticular, it is clearly visible from one angle, and vanishes from all others. Gustavo Germano’s 2006 sets of photographs, meanwhile, offer paired images: the first, an old family photo, and the second, a more recent shot – taken between 1989 and 1999 – that attempts to restage it. The resulting empty seats and compositional gulfs convey the jolt of disappearance, and the project’s thesis that ‘a person is always missing when all are not absent.’

Though Maliandi’s portrait of Mario is compassionate, the unfathomable trauma of preceding decades does not take centre stage. Rather, it casts stark, intriguing shadows as the narrator, wandering at an almost ashamedly safe remove of one generation, conveys her situation with wry humour. And it may well be that her journey has been governed by the pain of a more recent absence; she travels to Heidelberg, it is implied, in the aftermath of the death of her father. The novel’s opening lines describe him showing her, as a child, the constellations in the German night sky – which, he warned her, ‘were totally foreign to him.’ Her voluntary (re-) displacement in ‘this tiny, make-believe town’ may reflect a consequent desire to return to that time in her life, but the reality produces a strained combination of tension and apathy. And although she has freedom her parents did not enjoy, she studiously avoids the readily available option of a return flight to Buenos Aires.  

In fact, she seems to actively resist taking responsibility for her circumstances; she has told nobody of her plans, does not have a mobile phone or laptop in her possession, and allows ‘menacing subject lines’ from her employer to stack up, unchecked, in her inbox. This resistance to behavioural norms is most keenly emphasised by her reaction, early in the story, to her unexpected pregnancy – a revelation that propels the plot and temporal progression of the narrative, while increasing her suspended state of ‘terrifying uncertainty.’

Maliandi’s background in writing for theatre is evident. Through the observations and disclosures of one central voice, she supplies us with a compact set of characters and an arena of seemingly infinite possibility. The array of narrative options presented by our protagonist’s circumstances proves paralysing to her, however, and seems to enforce her apathy; the reader may reasonably anticipate, by the close of the novel’s opening chapter, a stubborn drift towards stasis. This is disrupted by a further, unforeseen event, which lends poignancy to the repetitive nature of institutional living, and strengthens our heroine’s engagement with the lives presently intersecting with her own. The story sets and tightens around this sudden development and the alliances that follow, and gathers pace and chilling suspense in the consequent arrival and unrelenting presence of Shanice’s mother, the glamorous Mrs Takahashi.

There is a slightly absurd, surreal element to the world of the novel; it is our world, but at a very slight tilt; strange coincidence, the transatlantic warnings of a disturbingly accurate psychic, omniscient enemies and an unexpected inheritance drive the narrative along. There is also a mild distortion of the availability of contemporary communication technologies against a politically contemporary – or at least very recent – backdrop; this may be intentional, and it certainly contributes to the possibility of psychological exile, and of an environment that is very slightly off-kilter.

The text, though both moving and entertaining, might also be interpreted on a symbolic level. Its surface offers an anxious account of someone who has landed in Germany ‘with [her] life in a shambles’, but it is shot through with allusions to humankind’s potential for inhumanity, from Mediterranean drownings, Southern Cone military dictatorships, the Holocaust, and Hiroshima, to – obliquely – the extermination, displacement and economic disenfranchisement of indigenous populations amidst waves of European migration to the western hemisphere. Our heroine’s pregnancy, then, apart from disrupting her voluntary state of stasis, perhaps posits questions about the unintelligibility of the future – both her own, and that of humanity. For all that, there is frequent comedy, often sited in bursts of dialogue that convey the bizarre, implausible nature of the characters’ situations. There is also a tender appreciation for life lived in relative obscurity, and for the quick, occasionally uneasy intimacy between strangers who are collectively far from home.