Musings on Exile, Immigrants, Pre-Unification Berlin, Trauma, Naturalization, and a Native Tongue

by Andrea Scrima

I moved to Berlin in 1984, but have rarely written about my experiences living in a foreign country; now that I think about it, it occurs to me that I lived here as though in exile those first few years, or rather as though I’d been banished, as though it hadn’t been my own free will to leave New York. It’s difficult to speak of the time before the Wall fell without falling into cliché—difficult to talk about the perception non-Germans had of the city, for decades, because in spite of the fascination Berlin inspired, it was steeped in the memory of industrialized murder and lingering fear and provoked a loathing that was, for some, quite visceral. Most of my earliest friends were foreigners, like myself; our fathers had served in World War II and were uncomfortable that their children had wound up in former enemy territory, but my Israeli and other Jewish friends had done the unthinkable: they’d moved to the land that had nearly extinguished them, learned to speak in the harsh consonants of the dreaded language, and betrayed their family and its unspeakable sufferings, or so their parents claimed. We were drawn to the stark reality of a walled-in, heavily guarded political enclave, long before the reunited German capital became an international magnet for start-ups and so-called creatives. We were the generation that had to justify itself for being here. It was hard not to be haunted by the city’s past, not to wonder how much of the human insanity that had taken place here was somehow imbedded in the soil—or if place is a thing entirely indifferent to us, the Earth entirely indifferent to the blood spilled on its battlegrounds. Read more »

Decoding A Language: An Interview With Andrea Scrima About Her New Novel “Like Lips, Like Skins”

Like Lips, Like Skins, Andrea Scrima’s second novel (German edition: Kreisläufe, Literaturverlag Droschl 2021), is a diptych; the first half of the book is dedicated to the first-person narrator’s mother, the second half to her late father. We meet Felice in the early eighties as a young art student in New York and as a newcomer to West Berlin before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall; ten years later, she returns to New York to install an exhibition of her work. Another fifteen years pass and we encounter her as a single mother poring over her father’s journals in search of her family’s past. Like Lips, Like Skins is about art, memory, and the repetitions of trauma. The first chapter was published in issue 232 of the Austrian literary magazine manuskripte; English-language excerpts have appeared in Trafika Europe, StatORec, and Zyzzyva. The German version of this interview appeared in issue 234 of manuskripte. Ally Klein interviewed the author over the course of several weeks via email.

Ally Klein: There’s a scene in Like Lips, Like Skins in which the first-person narrator, Felice, recalls studying the Sunday comics as a child. She buries her nose in the newsprint; when she fetches a magnifying glass to get closer, she discovers an “accumulation of tiny dots.” Individually, they’re no more than “lopsided splotch[es],” but together give rise to a bigger picture. I see a parallel here to the way the novel is stylistically conceived. Memories pop up seemingly at random, and in the end, they produce an image that works intuitively. The book eludes a stringent retelling, but leaves the reader with a sense of understanding something that can’t be expressed in terms of an idea or concept. The discoveries, if that’s what they can be called, are situated elsewhere.

Andrea Scrima: As a child, Felice doesn’t yet know that the interaction between the eye and brain fills in the gaps, the missing information between disparate points; for her, it’s just magic. I use language to create imagery that can exist outside of description or symbolism. In literature, images often have a function, they’re there to convey a certain idea. But some images are irreducible, they’re not all that easy to explain. And these are the ones that interest me most: they’re autonomous, they have a life of their own. Sometimes they’re a bit uncanny.

I’m interested in literature’s resilience, its ability to find a formal language for phenomena that can’t be easily captured in words. A language the reader somehow perceives as “true,” even if they can’t necessarily say how or why. Read more »

The Spirit of the Beehive

by Lisa Lieberman

“Trauma's never overcome,” Melvin Jules Bukiet asserted in The American Scholar. Redemptive works of literary fiction—or “Brooklyn Books of Wonder” (most of the authors he excoriated in the essay, including Alice Sebold, Jonathan Safran Foer, Myla Goldberg, Nicole Krauss, and Dave Eggers, hailed from the borough)—provide mock encounters with enormity. Wooly mysticism blunts the force of death and violence, expunging cruelty and indifference. Legitimate feelings of grief and rage are muffled in sentimentality. But the comfort these healing narratives offer is not only superficial. It is a travesty:

Your father is dead, or your mother, and so are most of the Jews of Europe, and the World Trade Center's gone, and racism prevails, and sex murders occur. What is, is. The real is the true, and anything that suggests otherwise, no matter how artfully constructed, is a violation of human experience.

Bukiet, the son of Holocaust survivors, preferred the open wound. He and other members of the so-called second generation were marked by their parents' ordeal. The ghetto, the lager, the devastating losses of an older generation who could not communicate their experiences: no matter how hard survivors's children tried to imagine life on the other side of the barbed wire, their efforts fell short of the truth. Their reconstructions, in the telling phrase of another second generation author, Henri Raczymow, were shot through with holes. Why bring closure to suffering that has no end?

Other twentieth-century catastrophes have marked the descendants of those who lived through them, the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) especially. Evacuar-madrid poster Outside of Spain, idealized treatments are abundant, Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and Malraux's L'Espoir upstaging Orwell's hard-nosed account, Homage to Catalonia. But within Spain itself, artistic renderings of the event have been more nuanced, resisting the trivializing sentimentality of the Brooklyn-Books-of-Wonder approach until fairy recently (Belle Epoque, which won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 1994, comes to mind).

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) was the first film to address the trauma of the Spanish Civil War, which it presented obliquely, through the eyes of a child. In part this was necessary to evade the censors; the dictator Francisco Franco still ruled Spain when Victor Erice made the film. But the story, which Erice wrote as well as directed, was intensely personal. “Erice and co-screenwriter Ángel Fernández Santos based the script on their own memories,” Paul Julian Smith revealed in his Criterion essay on the film, “recreating school anatomy lessons, the discovery of poisonous mushrooms, and the ghoulish games of childhood. It is no accident that the film is set in 1940, the year of Erice's own birth.”

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