The novel with its somewhat controversial beginning was well received at the time it first appeared written under a pseudonym. However I think that reading it now – knowing what we do about what happened in Europe in the years after Anna Gmeyner was writing lends it a greater poignancy.
“….Her story is one of heart-breaking poignancy; and although it is individualised with a truly imaginative vitality, we are convinced that her fate is only too typical of what is happening to hundreds of children in these outrageous times” ( 22nd September 1939 Manchester Guardian)
The novel takes place in a German town between the years of 1920 and 1933. In 1920 Germany was a broken country – struggling to recover from the four years of World War I. Manja is a novel about five children, Manja a young Jewish girl from Poland, and the four boys who are her friends. The novel opens with the stories of the conceptions of each of these five children. The families from which these boys come each represent the different political strands that existed in Germany at this time. One is a son of an idealist doctor, one the son of a Nazi, another of a Marxist, while the fourth is the son of a rich industrialist who believes his money may protect him from his part Jewish heritage. It is Manja who unites these boys – and this story is in part the story of their parents and of Germany in the years that lead to the raise of Nazism – but it is also the story of this friendship set against a terrifying backdrop. Manja shows the boys the constellation of Cassiopeia – five stars – which becomes the symbol of the friendship between the children. It is inevitable that their friendship is tested – that the evil that surrounds them at the end of 1933 intrudes – and the reader fears for Manja.
“I know what you mean,” he cried eagerly. “A long time ago at school there was a beetle in the yard, on its back. I turned it over so it could crawl, but there were some boys who kept on turning it back to make it wriggle. Those kind of people are different,”
“But there are so many of those kind of people.”
“Yes, aren’t there? There are suddenly so many,” he agreed. “But Manja if we and everyone like us are cowards, then all the beetles in the world will have to stay on their backs,”
Manja said nothing but pressed his hand. “You’ve turned over a beetle,” she said presently, “it’s crawling again.”
Somehow though, the story is never depressing, gently brutal perhaps – and very powerful. The children meet each Wednesday and Saturday – at the wall – which is all that remains of a house that once stood above a river. In the waste ground of these ruins the children are, for a time, able to enjoy the innocence of childhood. They are growing up however, and the times are changing. I hesitate to say too much that could result in spoilers as I know there are other Persephone readers out there who may be intending to read this one soon. Gmeyner captures the changing times, the fear and hate that pitches neighbour against neighbour with what feels like bone chilling authenticity. Suffice to say I will continue to think about Manja and her fate for a long time.