Tag Archives: Second World War

Book review: The Bitter Taste of Victory – Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich by Lara Feigel

bitter-tasteLara Feigel is a cultural historian and a literary critic, combining her interests to write about the meeting point between life, literature and history. In her last two books, she looks at how people whose quintessential purpose in life is the search for beauty and meaning survived their antithesis: war. In her The Love-charms of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War (2013), Feigel wrote about five authors who were based in wartime London, driving ambulances, fighting fires, being creative, and loving passionately while desperately trying to remain alive.

In her latest offering, The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich, Feigel picks up where she left off in her previous book, at the end of the war, and introduces a new, larger cast of characters – writers, intellectuals and artists – who were sent by the Allies to defeated and occupied Germany to assist in denazification and rebuilding the nation they had been trying systematically to annihilate over the past few years.

Their idealistic mission is an opportunity like no other, placing cultural activities at the centre of the plans to reconstruct the country. For a brief moment in history “a new united Europe, underpinned by shared heritage that would allow nationalism to be replaced by a common consciousness of collective humanity” seems like a viable option for the continent’s future.

Germany is a wasteland. Poverty, hunger and despair rule. Survivors grapple with guilt. Exiled German writer Peter de Mendelssohn arrives to establish newspapers in the British zone. He notes that “new eyes” and “totally new words” are needed to describe the devastation.

The horrors perpetrated in the concentration camps come to the surface of the world’s consciousness, and with them questions of complicity, responsibility and justice. In the light of the revelations and the Germans’ lack of immediate repentance, the Allied artists and reporters sent to the country find it nearly impossible to “make sense of the postwar world” or to emphasise with the people they encounter.

Among them is the photographer and war correspondent Lee Miller. After a visit to Dachau, she photographs herself in Hitler’s bathtub. Like others, she is “troubled by the ordinariness of Nazi leaders.” German-born Hollywood star Marlene Dietrich, “in army uniform, low-voiced, funny and adoring” has to face the fact that her family members collaborated with the Nazis.

Eerily echoing our own, this is the time of the Nurnberg trials, the nuclear bomb, migration, displacement and rising tensions between the other ideologies taking hold of post-war Europe, resulting in the division which will most strikingly manifest in the Berlin Wall. A sense of failure and helplessness sets in. But Feigel ends her brilliant portrayal of this turbulent period with Austrian-born Jewish American filmmaker Billy Wilder who “was able to laugh off the bureaucratic absurdity of communism, the megalomaniac blindness of American imperialism, and the fascist conformity of the Germans by satirising them all in equal measure” and standing “defiantly on the side of life.”

The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich

by Lara Feigel

Bloomsbury, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 24 February 2017.

Book review: Pleasure by Nthikeng Mohlele

PleasureThe title of Nthikeng Mohlele’s fourth novel delivers on its promise. Pleasure is a mesmerising, unusual book. At times I was hesitant to call it a novel. The story of Milton Mohlele, his dreams and musings, which he attempts to distil into writing, reads like a meditation. As literary history echoes in his name, Milton could be an alter ego for most writers seeking to find not only meaning but pleasure in the written word – to capture that elusive something which makes us sigh deeply with content when, if ever, we truly encounter it.

Pleasure opens in a bathtub, with Milton reminiscing about the women in his life and his late father, who was a writer of note. One of Milton’s preoccupations is to figure out how to avoid having to tread in his footsteps: “What more is there to say other than that the man was brilliant and is deceased?”

Often, I found my mind drifting, with the book’s images and insights as my guide. Exquisitely written, Pleasure allows you to abandon yourself to language: “This made me happy; a feeling that fell like snowflakes, like confetti showered on couples at weddings, like raindrops illuminated by car headlights, fireworks exploding sky high in magnificent, temporary fiery arrangements, falling back to earth in languid, crystal, dazzling, smoky slow motion.” Milton assures us that he “notices things”, “even the smallest, most insignificant of them”.

The observations are precise, beautiful, also in the face of evil (“a word stripped of all pretensions”). A dream sequence in the book adds a profound dimension to Milton’s considerations. In the dream, an American soldier’s life is spared and he is taken prisoner by a SS commandant. He meets an alluring woman at Wolfschanze, Hitler’s headquarters, where he finds himself among men “who could will anything into being”, including a reality in which the ash of their victims rains into coffee cups across Europe.

Once awake and contemplating the meaning of his vision, Milton is not oblivious to the fact that similar horrors happen right next to him, in present day Cape Town. He insists that Africans “should dream, or imagine themselves outside of only being black and colonised and enslaved”, that we are all part of a wider world. Towards the end, he also realises that depending on context, killing can be an act of kindness.

Pleasure never lulls us into easy answers, not everything can be “scrutinised, fully known, owned.” But it is a book full of wisdom which invites the reader to ponder the intricacies of existence. Its proclamations on love and the preciousness of the opportunities life offers are stunning: “Pleasure, I have learned, is a solitary phenomenon; it does not mix well with remorse and regrets and mistakes…at its most elementary pleasure survives on selfishness, on discreet contracts, undemocratic arrangements.” After all, most of us “want to die being able to say, I have loved in my life – truly loved, been molten and cooled and hammered by love, cast and polished.” Some of us, transformed, write.


by Nthikeng Mohlele

Picador Africa, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times on 20 May 2016, p. 10.

Book review: Letters of Stone – From Nazi Germany to South Africa by Steven Robins

Letters of StoneReading about the Holocaust is never easy. Facing its terrible truths, especially when your own family is involved, is heroic.

Anthropologist Steven Robins had no inkling of what he would unearth when he embarked on a quest to discover more about the three women in an old photograph that had sat in his childhood home for years. He was born in 1959 in Port Elizabeth. He and his brother Michael grew up oblivious to their Polish and German ancestry and to the fates of their father’s relatives during the Third Reich.

The journey Robins takes in Letters of Stone connects “different times and places”. It is a journey that took nearly three decades to complete – between the time Robins interviewed his father in Port Elizabeth in 1989 and the publication of this astounding book. To begin with, Robins had very little to go on. But a series of uncanny coincidences led him further into the labyrinth of the private history of his family, and beyond.

Continue reading: LitNet

Book review: The Death’s Head Chess Club by John Donoghue

Deaths Head Chess ClubA friend has recently suggested that my reluctance to read Second World War novels might be similar to many South Africans’ reluctance to read apartheid fiction, and that saturation might be at the heart of it. True, having grown up in Poland and Austria, I have heard, seen and read plenty about the war – the stories as related by both sides. It is not that I shy away from the horror, even though after having visited the Mauthausen concentration camp as a teenager I was unable to accompany my husband when he wanted to see the concentration camp in Auschwitz (throughout, I sat very still in a coffee shop just outside and wept without going in). Imagination and empathy can be deadly for a soul. But I understand that these (hi)stories must be told and listened to. Today, in the midst of xenophobia, racism and violence, we need to grasp, perhaps even more than ever, what is at stake when we declare others as subhuman…

Continue reading: LitNet

The Death’s Head Chess Club
by John Donoghue
Atlantic Books, 2015

Reading Paul Morris’s Back to Angola: A Journey from War to Peace

Back to Angola…without language we are left to watch each other carefully…
– Paul Morris

I went to see it twice. I still don’t really understand why, but Anthony Akerman’s Somewhere On the Border (1983) moved me deeply. The scene when Bombardier Kotze crushes the conscripts’ cake with his boot still haunts me.

When you think about it for a second, war is so pointless that it’s impossible to imagine why we are still doing it in the twenty-first century. I don’t mean the greed and politics behind it, nor the ideologies abused to wage it – I get all of that. I mean the everyday, human aspect of it.

No, as a species we haven’t learned much.

I have this fantasy that, like during that famous Christmas Truce of 1914, one day soldiers all over the world will be compelled to simply put down all their weapons, exchange smiles, and go home to their loved ones. And never, ever pick them up again. Not because some government or leader has said they shouldn’t, but because they simply have had enough. I know I will never live to see the day, but just imagine it: it is a simple as that – a communal decision, a definite, ultimate NO. To greed, exploitation, violence and death.

Reading Paul Morris’s Back to Angola: A Journey from War to Peace (Zebra Press, 2014), I was constantly reminded of my naïve fantasy, of the heart-breaking Somewhere on the Border, of my grandfather’s dark recollections of Second World War, of my father’s mindboggling stories from his two years in the Polish Army around the time when I was born, of my brother’s strangely defining eight months of service in the Austrian Army when we were at university, and especially of a dear South African friend’s horror stories from the Angolan border. I am infinitely grateful that, to me, these are just stories. That I have never had to experience war or train for it myself. I hope I never will. The war stories I know, now Morris’s among them, bring home to me how, if it doesn’t kill you, soul-destroying and utterly futile war is.

In the beginning of Back to Angola, Morris mentions that he doesn’t consider himself a brave man. But only a brave man could have written this book. It is “my truth”, he says, but it is the kind of personal intimate truth which has universal appeal. A quarter of a century after his first involuntary visit to Angola in 1987 at the height of the military conflict, Morris decided to return to the country of his nightmares and confront what he refers to his “shadow side”. To fully experience the present-day Angola and to come as close as possible to its people, he chose an unusual way of travelling and went by bike. Assisted by friends and former enemies, he cycled for hundreds of kilometres to revisit the places haunting him and to transform the sinister image of Angola of the past into something different, more positive, more real today.

It is a parallel journey into the past and into the present; both have their challenges, both require guts, a lot of guts. During both, Morris confronts his understanding of courage, masculinity, loyalty, borders, and forgiveness. Confessional, shatteringly honest, beautifully written, Back to Angola tells a story of great relevance, specifically because it is told from a profoundly personal perspective. It captures the essence of why an entire generation of South African men is still dealing with the unimaginable.

A story about death is transformed into a story about life and facing up to one’s demons and responsibilities. It is a story of reaching out, of going back only to move forward. Back to Angola is also a chronicle of a riveting adventure in contemporary Africa. Not an easy read, but necessary. Highly recommendable.


Algiers“A deceptively lovely city,” a friend tells when I share the news of our impending journey to Algiers with her. It almost sounds like a warning. “Is it safe?” My mother wants to know, remembering the horrors of the 1990s, the Dark Decade of the Algerian Civil War. I assure her that the nation’s troubled past is over. The Bradt guide to Algeria we bought for the trip is adamant: in spite of recent political tensions in the region of Kabylie, terrorist activities in the country are “under control”.

In July, my husband André and I were invited to attend the second Panaf (Pan-African Festival), organised by the Algerian Ministry of Culture to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first Panaf in 1969. Thousands of artists from all over Africa and the rest of the world descended on the White City, as the vibrant capital of Algeria is known. The origin of the name becomes immediately clear: the dominantly white architecture of Algiers’ colonial past is almost blinding in the shimmering heat of the summer afternoon on which we arrive in the city.
At the airport, we are greeted by a troop of masked officials distributing pamphlets about swine flu, and then the welcoming figure of Madame Tabbech from the Ministry. Together, we make our way through the dense traffic of Algiers (a trademark of the city, soon to be alleviated by an underground railway system) to our hotel.

At first glance, Algiers seems like a huge building site, modern residential and commercial edifices sprouting from every possible piece of the parched land. All roads are flanked by Algerian and Cuban flags; Raúl Castro is on a state visit, we are told. Two days later, the flags disappear and one’s eyes are drawn to more permanent features of the capital: characteristic blue window and door shutters; fancy iron balconies, also in blue; and innumerable satellite dishes attached to every building, an army of ears tuned in to the outside world. My favourite though are ceramic mosaics of all sizes, adorning many architectural structures in the city.

Ornamental mosaics define the magnificent interior of Hotel El Djazair, formerly Hotel St George. Entering the hotel and its lush garden is like emerging into the world of One Thousand and One Nights. Founded at the end of the nineteenth century, the renowned hotel has been a home to such distinguished visitors as Rudyard Kipling, Sir Winston Churchill, or André Gide, and a witness to major historic events: General Dwight D. Eisenhower maintained his headquarters here for a year during the Second World War.

Algiers2The hotel’s restaurant delights not only with delicious local cuisine, but also with a few wonderful English translations of some of its dishes. Our top two: “Ring of Leg Painful Garlic Sauce” and “Burn Taste Cream in Vanilla”. The unintended humour goes well with the fabulous food. I can’t get enough of the tasty chorba frik (traditional soup with lamb and bulgur wheat) and the strong, refreshing green mint tea, served with fresh mint leaves in small fancy glasses. I obtain the surprisingly intricate recipes for both from Madam Tabbech. Alcohol is rarely seen on Algeria’s tables (the majority of the people are Muslims), but the few local wines we have an opportunity to taste can be highly recommended, especially the rosés.

Algiers does not boast many restaurants, the ones which exist are mostly traditional. Instead, local fast food places abound, but we haven’t glimpsed a single McDonald’s or KFC. Moreover, other forms of infrastructure geared specifically towards foreign tourists do not become apparent during our stay. This is not to say that tourists are not welcome or that there is nothing to be seen. On the contrary. But one has the impression that the bounty of Algerian cultural heritage is preserved and showed off primarily for the benefit of Algerians. In this respect it seems that the Panaf is meant to open up new possibilities for this intriguing country.

Visitors to Algiers are offered plenty of sightseeing opportunities. One of the most formidable is the enormous Monument (Makham ech chaid) which towers over the entire cityscape, paying tribute to the martyrs who died in the war of independence from France (1954-1962). The view from the Monument over the city is breathtaking; its presence constantly reminds of French colonisation and the brutal conflict by which it ended.

Algiers3In contrast, the traces of one of Algeria’s most famous sons, Albert Camus (the 1957 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature), have been nearly obliterated in the city precisely because of his ambivalent stance during the Algerian War of Independence. Today, perceived by many as a traitor to the cause, Camus is nearly invisible in Algiers where he lived for a considerable period. It is by pure chance that we meet somebody who can point out to us the grammar school he attended with Camus and the building where the author lived in a flat in the district of Belcourt. But uncertainty persists, since no plaque indicates that we have been to the right place, and opinions differ among the Algerians we meet – most of whom view Camusians with scepticism.

No matter, it is still an uncanny treat to read Camus’ The Outsider during our visit and to roam in the same streets as its characters. Or to be reminded of the work of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an ex-officer of the Algerian army who broke many silences in his novels written under the protective penname Yasmina Khadra. Or to be told that Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstruction whom most believe to have been French, was not only born in Algeria but spent his youth near its capital.
The unbearably hot July afternoons in Algiers are perfect for rest and reading. Only once do we attempt to brave the noon heat and the notorious traffic to visit the Catholic basilica of Notre Dame d’Afrique, but both remain impenetrable on the given day and we are forced to turn around halfway, glimpsing the imposing basilica only from the distance. I was eager to see its majestic statue of a Black Madonna and the fascinating inscription above, “Our Lady of Africa, pray for us and for the Muslims”, which, as Madame Tabbech proudly explains, encapsulates the cosmopolitan and tolerant nature of Algeria’s society today.

Strolling through the streets of Algiers one has the feeling of walking through the entire world. Nowhere else have I seen people of so many diverse cultural backgrounds come together to coexist in one society. Reflected in anatomy, fashion, language, cuisine, religious practices, the differences are unmistakable and yet there is something about the ease with which one encounters others that is less obviously marked by tension, despite decades of conflict. Our stay is too short to explore the reality or illusion of this relaxed atmosphere. Because of the Panaf, there is also an unusually high police and military presence in the city and its surroundings, marring the perception, but it is a remarkable experience nevertheless.

For the duration of the Panaf, Algiers is also home to Lucy. The estimated 3.2-million-year-old remains of an Australopithecus afarensis discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 are on display in the Bardo Museum. The permanent ethnographic exhibitions of the museum, housed in an impressive Ottoman building, highlight the riches of Algeria’s regional costumes and jewellery.

Jean-Etienne Liotard's portrait of Marie Adelaïde of FranceLocated up the hill from the botanical gardens of the Jardin d’Essai du Hamma where supposedly the first Tarzan film was shot in the late 1940s, the Museum of Fine Arts offers a diverse collection of paintings, sculptures and ceramics, including one of my favourite paintings of a woman reading, Jean-Etienne Liotard’s portrait of Marie Adelaïde of France.

Visitors interested in modern art will enjoy the MAMA (Modern Art Museum of Algiers), with its ornamental interior design and vast exhibition spaces displaying, at the time of our visit, some of Africa’s most prominent artists, among them the Algerian painter Choukri Mesli and South African photographers Lien Botha and Peter McKenzie.
I still have the old-fashioned habit of sending postcards when I travel. In Algiers, the experience is especially gratifying. The interior design of the main post office building is a feat of architectural splendour. We were dazzled by the cathedral-like ornamental columns and vaults of the interior, shining as if coated with gold.
The images on my postcards capture scenes from Algiers’ most mysterious district, the Casbah, the definite highlight of our Algerian trip. Warned by our guidebook not to attempt a visit without an expert guide, we are fortunate to be accompanied by Kamel Righi on our excursion to the area. Righi, a young architect born in the Casbah, returned to his birthplace to work with the UNESCO in restoring the wonders of the ancient district. In spite of its dark narrow alleys, crumbling buildings, endless litter and penetrating odours, the area has an irresistible charm that is difficult to grasp. There is an element of magic in the quickly vanishing shadows of people and cats making their way through the winding passageways, in the colourful intricately decorated doors behind which veiled women disappear with bulky shopping bags, in the little workshops attended to by toothless men drinking from tiny cups of coffee, or in the laughter of children playing with marbles in these crowded spaces.

Algiers7The entire district seems to be in a state of decay, but it has many surprises in store for lucky visitors. A cobbler insists we inspect his tiny workshop where there is not enough space for all of us to stand in or even to stand up. We are invited to enter one of the houses at the end of a dilapidated alley. Behind the heavy ornate door is a small two-storey arcade courtyard, the flats around it home to an extended family. The interior surprises with its cleanness and excellent state of repair. Near the central market place, an elderly Italian who settled in Algiers decades ago proudly displays the ceramic mosaic he’s creating for his beloved wife.

The Casbah is the oldest part of the city. Draped over the hill like a densely woven oriental carpet, it is mostly a residential area, dotted with architectural and historical gems of interest: palaces turned museums, synagogues turned mosques. The Citadelle at the very top, currently under renovation, offers spectacular views of the modern city and coastline below, with dozens of ships cruising its busy harbour. Nowhere do the different facets of Algiers become as apparent as here. During the colonial period, the French intersected the Casbah with parallel streets of typical white and blue in an attempt to infiltrate and destroy the local structures. The district, like the rest of Algiers, persists in its own ways, assimilating the historical forces at work within and around it. This endurance might be the most striking element of the “deceptive loveliness” of Algiers my friend cautioned me about.

First published in the Sunday Independent, 4 October 2009.