In her masterfully written novel, “Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague,” Wall Street Journal correspondent, Geraldine Brooks, transports readers to a remote miner village in Eyam, England in the midst of the 1666 plague outbreak. Through the eyes of a simple servant girl, Anna Firth, we witness first-hand the awesome power of a major catastrophe to unravel deeply rooted conventions and convictions. Social mores and values, class systems and moral codes, once so steadfast and omnipotent no longer matter when everyone from the butcher, to the baker, to the candlestick maker is hemorrhaging bulges of puss before succumbing to rosy ringed skin and finally, the Black Death.
How do you find meaning in life when death kills the innocent and allows the guilty to thrive? Who do you turn to when there is no one left to help you bury your loved ones? What good is wealth and social standing when there is nothing left to buy and no one left to acknowledge it?
Geraldine Brook’s novel is more than an account of a tight knit community that voluntarily agrees to quarantine itself during the plague in exchange for the delivery of goods and basic needs from outside towns. Her book is a thought-provoking examination of life’s existential questions on how society functions and the fragility and seeming futility of social laws, order and hierarchies when the Plague comes to town.
The story of war, told from the perspective of one of war’s spoils – a young woman filled with hope and ready to jump back up every time she is kicked and held down. She is funny, insightful and optimistic and for all these reasons, an inspiration to all women and men and a light of hope for humanity in a seemingly inhumane world.
The subtitle of the book is “Diary 20 April 1945 to 22 June 1945” but the book is much richer than a simple play-by-play of a young woman’s experience for two months in her worn torn city. Perhaps because the author was a journalist before the war, the book is a thoughtfully written, at times objective eye-witness account of Berlin as the victorious Russian forces greedily devour the spoils of the vanquished city – women, property and resources.
When the book begins, the narrator is a 34 year old woman living alone in war-torn Berlin hunkering down with her neighbors in the local bomb shelter and scavenging for food. Rumors abound that the Russians draw ever nearer and women exchange at first in hushed tones, and later in downright vulgar terms what dark fate is marching toward them. The author is afraid but she writes, “But there comes a time when you’re so mortally tired you stop being afraid. That’s probably how soldiers sleep on the front, amid all the filth.” (Anonymous 49)
Only the resilient survive
The women are repeatedly raped, degraded, worked, and used as the men see fit and still they continue to get up in the morning and live. “What will become of us? I feel so dirty, I don’t want to touch anything, least of all my own skin.” (Anonymous 80) The author’s ability to speak basic Russian is perhaps a blessing and curse. “By the same token it’s also easier for those who don’t understand a word of Russian. For them the Russians are more alien; they can talk themselves into the idea that these men aren’t people but savages, mere animals.” (Anonymous 99) Because of her language skills, she is fetched to prevent a rape. Together with another Russian soldier, she talks the two perpetrators out of raping a neighbor only to have the two wait for the third soldier to leave so they can ambush and rape her instead.
Perhaps one of the great casualties of war – besides the death of innocence — is women’s view of men. “These days I keep noticing how my feelings toward men –and the feelings of all the other woman – are changing. We feel sorry for them; they seem so miserable and powerless. The weaker sex. Deep down we women are experiencing a kind of collective disappointment. …Among the many defeats at the end of the war is the defeat of the male sex.” (Anonymous 62)
To the victor go the spoils
She and the other women learn to align themselves with specific men to assert some kind of control over the situation. “I…feel as if I’m performing on the stage. I couldn’t care less about the lot of them! I’ve never been so removed from myself, so alienated. All my feelings seem dead, except for the drive to live. They shall not destroy me.” (Anonymous 87) Later she writes, “…as long as I’m nothing more than a spoil of war I intend to stay dead and numb, without feeling.”
Rape becomes so common that women exchange their stories about it over tea in a manner once reserved for the news of the day. “…here we’re dealing with a collective experience, something foreseen and feared many times in advance, that happened to women right and left, all somehow part of the bargain. And this mass rape is something we are overcoming collectively as well. All the women help the other, by speaking about it, airing their pain and allowing others to air theirs and spit out what they’ve suffered.” (Anonymous 174).
Together they manage, survive and persevere. And as a kind of order is established and life begins to return to a new kind of normal, the survivors of the war – women and men — must acknowledge there is no return to the blissful ignorance of the prewar error. If the husbands, fiancés and boyfriends return from the front, the women silently wonder what they did to the women in the villages they had conquered. And the men are confronted with a new, stronger, more outspoken woman, a woman not so easily bossed around and impressed with muscle force and one that has most likely survived ordeals he would rather not know.
But return to life also puts an end to the collective sharing of the rape experience of the women, placing an invisible muzzle on the women best evidenced perhaps most sadly and blatantly in the author’s experience with the publication of her diaries. Ten years after the war, the diaries were first published in English-speaking countries and not until five years after that, a German edition followed in Switzerland in 1960. But reaction to the book in the German-speaking world was negative and accusations were hurled that the author was tainting the good name of German women with her tales of rape and survival. The backlash was so tremendous that the author refused to allow publication again in her lifetime. A Woman in Berlin was first republished in 2003 but the identity of the author still remains secret. A woman who managed to survive ongoing rape and humiliation had to publish under Anonymous.
“All I can do is touch my small circle… What’s left is just to wait for the end. Still, the dark and amazing adventure of life beckons. I’ll stick around, out of curiosity, and because I enjoy breathing and stretching my healthy limbs.”(Anonymous 206)
Read this book. Don’t skip the foreword. Then pass it along for someone else to read. The lessons extend beyond Berlin in WWII, way back to Cicero who considered the rape of women in war a mere property crime and the ancient Greeks who considered it socially acceptable behavior to Bosnia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and the list goes on and on. The Women under Siege project includes information about how sexualized violence is used as a weapon of war. These atrocities must be shared until they are stopped.
KC Blau is originally a steel city girl who has resided amongst the cobble-stoned lanes of Vienna, Austria for over 15 years. She is a German-English translator who loves to relate the tales of a bygone era of the fascinating women who lived, loved and struggled (not necessarily in that order) in turn-of-century Vienna.