The Photographer by Meike Ziervogel

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Review by Hayley Anderton

I first heard of Meike Ziervogel in the early days of her publishing house, Peirene Press, when I was offered a book to review. It hooked me in and so I’ve followed what she’s done, first as a publisher, and then as a writer, ever since. ‘The Photographer’ is her fourth novel, and I think it’s by far her best one yet.

It’s based on her grandparents’ war, and post war, experiences when they were amongst the eleven million Germans who fled from east to west. The Photographer of the title is Albert, who meets and falls in love with Trude in the early 1930’s. Trude’s mother, Agatha, doesn’t approve of him – she thinks he’s socially beneath her daughter and a bit of a chancer, but neither of these things matter to Trude who elopes anyway. In the years that follow, Albert and Trude travel, build a reasonably successful business, and have a son, Peter. Despite Albert’s occasional infidelities they’re happy, but Albert is determined to stay out of the war, and Agatha still distrusts him.

When an opportunity presents itself to her she betrays him to the police, after which he’s sent to the front. Eventually the family is reunited in a refugee camp, where the question is what kind of life can they build together after everything that’s happened?

There is also a wider question here about women’s complicity in war, especially when it comes to sending their menfolk to fight. It’s something Ziervogel has touched on in previous books, and directly challenges the line that so many German women took post war- that they simply hadn’t known what was really going on. If that can’t have been true, it was an understandable fiction to maintain. The more so for realising that it’s only now, 3 generations later, that a book like this can finally be written.

Using family history as the start point for ‘The Photographer’ provides it with an interesting set of constraints. Agatha’s betrayal, for example, feels like it ought to be punished. Particularly because Ziervogel also uses familiar fairy tale tropes where the wicked stepmother always gets her comeuppance. Life doesn’t always have such a neat symmetry to it though, and making sense of what actually happened is what makes this such a powerful book. 

If Trude opts not to confront her mother about her actions is that a betrayal of her husband? Or an acknowledgment of the bonds between mother and daughter, of her own responsibilities as a mother, and the more pressing need to simply survive the current situation, and that the women need each other to do that? There is also a question over what Agatha actually does. Is it really a betrayal, or is it an act of protection? You will need to read the book to find out. 

By the time the family are reunited it’s also possible to ask if after everything that’s happened in between, the relative miracle of them all being alive and together is enough to balance what’s in the past. True to the fairy tale format Ziervogel ends the book with a happy moment, which gives the possibility of a happy ever after, but if that doesn’t seem quite feasible there are enough unanswered questions to leave some doubt.

Altogether is a remarkable book that explores a number of important issues; I haven’t even mentioned the way it hints at the impact of being a refugee has down the generations, or explores the tensions between a returning father and his child. And hardly touched on the questions it asks, certainly makes me ask, about the silences and gaps that run through any family history. 

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.

Meike Ziervogel, The Photographer, (Salt 2017) 978-1784631147, 171pp., Paperback

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