Natalia Delazari reviews Marcel Krueger’s intriguing new book which raises important questions about the intersection of memory, imagination, and identity in the genre of the memoir.
Marcel Krueger, Babushka’s Journey: The Dark Road to Stalin’s Wartime Camps (London/New York: I.B.Tauris, 2018), 272pp.
Babushka’s Journey is an intriguing amalgamation of fictionalized biography, memoir, and travelogue. On the one hand, it tells about the author’s grandmother Cäcilie (Cilly), who passed away in 2009, about her homeland in East Prussia and her wartime labor camp experiences in the Soviet Union, the story which itself is a combination of historical references, eyewitness interviews, Cilly’s accounts as Krueger remembers them, his own memories of his grandmother, and figments of the author’s imagination. On the other hand, it is a book about Krueger’s own journey and experiences of the places where his grandmother lived during the war and the postwar years. The narrative is rich in visual triggers—maps, photos, historical documents—while the clack-clacking of the trains, both in the mid-twentieth and the early twenty-first century, is its persistent soundtrack, sometimes soothing, at other times disquieting.
The book’s first epigraph, the extract from Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem, seems to explain its implicit purpose, which is the search for answers to one’s own life through the life stories of one’s family:
Some forebear of mine was a violinist,
A horseman and thief, moreover.
Isn’t that where I got my wanderlust,
Why my hair smells of wind and weather?
The explicit reasons for writing the book are personal as well—Krueger questions the ‘past’ status of the past (“It’s not even dead yet”) and attempts to conquer the chaotic flow of history and to find significance in random events by structuring them in the book. To him, the book itself is a memento of his grandmother.
The most distinguishing aspect of the book is its borderline genre, the braiding of fiction and reality. On the opening pages, Krueger explicitly states, “I have made my grandmother a character in her own story”: Cilly’s snippets of information require the work of imagination. And yet the narrative is as truthful as it can be, and even if it happened otherwise in Cilly’s life, her story echoes tens of thousands of other stories and is thus, to a certain extent, universal.
The author sets out on a space-time journey: he ventures both into the foreign lands of Poland and Russia and into the past, which, as one of the epigraphs says, “is a foreign country” itself. What distracts the reader from the grave seriousness of the main plotline is not only the author’s occasional negation of realism, but also his personal stories he accrued during his long journey, some of them highly amusing; for example, his encounter with a drunk and friendly Russian on the train or, a bit on the scary side, hyperbolized stereotypes about Russian planes that “either crashed into the Black Sea after an unexplained mid-air self-destruction or exploded and crashed due to a terrorist bombing” or YouTube-inflected opinions about completely insane Russian drivers “brandishing clubs and hatchets and pistols.” Krueger’s struggle with deciphering Cyrillic characters while in Russia curiously echoes his misspellings in the English transliterations of Russian names in the book, which, however, is a slip as inevitable as it is pardonable.
Curiously though, the style of the book is largely sober and matter-of-fact, which brings into focus rare poignant passages and images. Throughout his journey, the writer wears Cilly’s simple crucifix, “that little piece of belief and home” that has surprisingly survived Russian guards and fellow inmates and that serves as a physical link between her past and Krueger’s present.
The author superimposes his story on his grandmother’s one, but he makes sure the former is transparent and does not eclipse the latter; he mostly succeeds in this task, save for a couple of passages abounding with what seems superfluous information. The details of his grandmother’s wartime experiences, on the contrary, are never inessential; moreover, Krueger makes efforts to render properly the bits and pieces he knows and to fill in the gaps to the best of his ability. This parallels his search for the material evidence of Cilly’s presence in what is now Poland and Russia, a search that leads unexpectedly to the discovery of a visitor center resembling an amusement park in the place that used to be Hitler’s military headquarters built for Operation Barbarossa (the Blitzkrieg plan to conquer the USSR).
Krueger’s fictionalization of historical narrative along with his emotional involvement in the story reveals both the powers and weakness of literature. On the one hand, the author openly admits his inability to reproduce certain historical facts, “to replicate in fiction the experiences of Red Army soldiers in East Prussia in 1945, or the experiences of the German women.” On the other hand, it enables him to entwine the accounts of exhaustion, starvation, and humiliation that were inescapable in the camps with “silver linings” that might not have been, or were not, true: a friendly face, sudden luck, a feeling of hope and happiness despite events that seem to send well-laid plans awry.
The road to the wartime camps is dark indeed, but the book is hopeful. It ends with Cilly’s laughter, “a deep bellowing roar encompassing all her passion and lust for life,” perhaps the best ending for a work whose reading—and writing—requires considerable emotional efforts of all parties involved. I hope that one day it will be translated into Russian.
Natalia Delazari is a freelance English-Russian translator who has recently completed her MPhil in English Literary Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her current research interests include narratology and the fiction of Vladimir Nabokov. Aside from literature, she finds pleasure in traveling, photography, and experimental cooking.