Monday, 16 July 2018

Sandra Hoffmann: Paula




PAULA is a strange, disturbing book. It refuses to sit firmly in any one category. In many ways, it’s a memoir. It’s made up largely of Sandra Hoffmann’s memories of her grandmother, the Paula of the title, and the silence that she spread across the family. Paula, a devout Catholic from rural southern Germany, had two illegitimate children. One died shortly after his birth; the other was Hoffmann’s mother. Paula refused to tell anyone who the father or fathers were.

It’s that silence, that yawning gap in the family’s history, that means the book isn’t quite a memoir. Over the years, Hoffmann has had to use fiction to imagine her own origins, the reason why she and her mother are darker-skinned than anyone else in the village.
Several times in my life, I’ve been thought Greek, Moroccan, Turkish, half-Indian, French or Italian. I’m still searching for the root that nurtures these assumptions. Where does my skin colour come from, my dark, wiry hair?
She has explored her possible origins in stories and a novel, Was ihm fehlen wird, wenn er tot ist. And in this book too, she resorts to her imagination to fill in the blank spots. The author refers to her book as a “narrative”; its editor calls it a “memoir”; it can be read as a novel and certainly has the beautiful language and carefully crafted structure of one. I know that Sandra Hoffmann wrote a much longer book and pared it down to a highly atmospheric 157 pages.

Paula left a collection of some 400 photos, which Hoffmann uses to beautiful effect as a narrative device. Again, though, these are real pictures, of real people – unidentified people. The narrator combs through them repeatedly, searching for men who might be her grandfather or someone her grandmother once loved, and for clues about the rest of her story. Meanwhile, we read about her increasingly oppressive life under one roof with Paula, and with parents who have abandoned curiosity in favour of a comfortable life. An understandable choice, and one that Hoffmann doesn’t condemn them for, although she clearly mourns it.

Interspersed with reflections from the present day, we learn more and more about Paula as the narrator gets older and her perspective alters. Her grandmother changes from a familiar, soothing presence, who teaches her to pray and protects her from her fears, to an infuriating disruption, refusing to respect her personal space and making her ill. And eventually, a woman who had a tough life and was shaped by it. The narrator pieces together a story for her grandmother out of snatches of conversation, stories told to her as a child, things her father tells her later. Yet there is no way to find out where she herself comes from. The conclusion, if there can be one, is that Sandra Hoffmann became a writer precisely because of that family silence, as a way to understand herself.

This is not, however, a purely therapeutic exercise. The book is a joy to read, thoughtful and precise and self-possessed, yet it always feels intimate. Hoffmann was influenced by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, but her book is all her own. It presents a number of exciting challenges for translators: natural use of Swabian dialect, capturing the oppressive tone of family life, getting the careful sentences right – and the central idea, that of Schweigen, which doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English. I don’t want to jump the gun on that because Sandra Hoffmann will be our writer-in-residence at the BCLT Summer School in Norwich next week, and the participants will have the pleasure of finding solutions. I’m very much looking forward to it, and to the outcome. It feels to me like a book where translators will benefit hugely from direct conversation with the author.

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