ANDREW STEINMETZ GOT HIS HANDS ON A VERY GOOD STORY. It came to him courtesy of his family. We learn in this book, half-memoir, half-fiction, that Steinmetz’s great-aunt Eva performed in the first workshop production of Brecht’s famous Threepenny Opera back in 1928. Eva didn’t have any more than a bit part – apparently she was one of the pack of whores in the play – and she was in the workshop, not the final version that the world saw on stage. But that’s all right. Often the best stories come from the margins of history.
Steinmetz takes us back to Eva’s brief career as an actress in those most troubled of times, the 1920s and 1930s in Germany. He treats us to a menagerie of characters from Eva’s family (I’ll skip the usual adjective “dysfunctional,” since that goes without saying). Her mother is an invalid, a kind of monster who takes an inordinate time to die. Eva’s siblings terrorize her. Her father is an austere man who has grown prosperous from manufacturing artificial limbs for WWI veterans. He spends more time with his Lutheran pastor than with his family.
Then there are the Nazis. The Steinmetz family, though they claim to be Protestants, are Jews, and we know it long before they finally figure it out. By that time, Eva has launched her acting career, married a well-known Communist and so become a member of a class of people identified as enemies, and of course she ends up having to flee. She manages to get out at some cost to her dignity: she is forced to give herself to the Nazi SS man, an old family friend, who secures her visa, but she murders him in the bath in an echo of Charlotte Corday and Marat. In the end she is one of the lucky ones, since she ends up in Canada.
And there, in a variety of locations, her great-nephew Andrew Steinmetz interviews her. If you liked the premise of the story, if you like historical drama, then you’ll like the first half of this book.
Because Steinmetz’s great-aunt briefly knew Brecht and his circle of artists and hangers-on, Steinmetz has decided to apply Brecht’s theories about alienation and detachment to his work. The sections in which Steinmetz muses about the process of reconstructing the past are not very successful. At one point, he tells us, “research is reparation, penance, licence. It reeks of a lumpen imagination, perverted by puritanical desire.” As someone who has known the pleasure of researching a fair number of novels, I couldn’t follow him. Is he feeling guilty about “stealing” his great-aunt’s story? If so, admit it.
As the book moves towards its end – Eva cannot live forever – Steinmetz is prone to more and more such musings. In the publicity sheet that accompanies the book, he admits that Brechtian theory is at cross-purposes with his story. He should have dumped the theory and kept the story.
David Homel is a Montreal writer and filmmaker, and the author of seven works of fiction.