The projector, like a moonbeam, illuminates a bed with pale blue sheets. Beneath them Anna and Lotte fall asleep at night, their limbs firmly intertwined like mating octopuses. Without their noticing, the night tactfully unties this knot so that by morning each wakes up on one side of the bed, their backs adjacent.
I've picked the above lines as my tone-setting quotation for this post because they seem to express a great deal of what is good and bad about Tessa de Loo's wartime-and-after drama The Twins (Dutch original 1993; English translation, by Ruth Levitt, 2000). On the negative side, there's that clunky choice of image to evoke these two little girls, twin sisters, clinging to each other each night (octopuses I can see, but the idea of them "mating" goes beyond simply off-kilter and right into bemusing); more pleasingly, there's the spare elegance of "the night tactfully unties this knot", a kinder precursor to the separations of the plot. But the passage is - rather neatly, for my purposes - framed by two more unsatisfactory elements: the unfriendly precision of "adjacent", which expresses the distance and reserve that will come to replace the girls' intertwining, but which nonetheless sounds like something out of a flat-pack furniture instruction booklet (I cannot tell whether this is down to translation or original); and the imaginary "projector" that is our eye on the scene.
Looking back, as I write this post, it is this last part that lies at the heart of my problem with this accomplished and interesting book: the way the narrative sits back when I want it to explore the characters' heads, and above all the way adherence to the story's structural and conceptual conceit (separated in childhood, the twins grow into two very different women with two very different experiences of WWII) keeps stifling a more organic unfolding of events.
It leaves the reader with much food for thought; I'm just not sure it leaves us with much fuel for feeling.
Part of the problem, as in the passage quoted above, is in the framing. We begin in the Belgian town of Spa, with the chance reunion of the two ageing, ailing sisters of the title. Loud, brash Anna is delighted to have happened upon her long-lost sister, and eager to catch up, but Lotte - who feels a reflexive dislike at hearing German spoken that is not really dispelled when she realises the identity of the speaker - is more reserved. Thereafter, each chapter begins with a dialogue - generally awkward, and highly charged beneath the surface - between the sisters in the present (narrated in the past tense), before descending into flashbacks of their earlier lives (present tense). The tales of the past, although ostensibly sparked by their meandering conversation, proceed linearly, albeit peppered with foreshadowings and tedious "If she had only known then"-type statements; for example:
Without suspecting that this is a dress rehearsal for reality, that she is going to interpret this role for ten years without an audience, Anna presents such a believable, pitiful child on the stage that tears prick the step-aunts' eyes.
In the same vein, the occasional portentousness grates; an early mention of Cologne, the twin's birthplace, leads Lotte to reflect, before the sentiment is really earned by any events described within the book:
As the name of the city continued to resonate in the rest-room that had never known anything other than absolute silence inside its walls, it occurred to Lotte for a moment that Cologne was a cursed city, somewhere you were better off not to have come from, a city totally annihilated to punish the arrogance of a people.
Clang! This is Important!
Anyway, we begin with descriptions of the twins' closeness, as in the passage quoted earlier. Anna breaks her elbow, and "rants and raves like a hysterical countess who has gambled away all her possessions, backed up by Lotte, whose capacity to feel pain and panic extends symbiotically to her sister's body." Some time later, she has the first intimation of what is evidently meant to be a keynote of the novel:
Anna stares at her, overcome by an unfamiliar, terrifying sensation. Through the play and her role in it, Lotte and she for the first time exist as two individuals separate from each other. Each with a particular point of view - Lotte from the hall, herself from the stage. This awareness of separation, of unwanted duality, suddenly upsets her so she storms diagonally across the stage, through the two lovers' reconciliation scene.
Before much longer, both their parents die, and they are separated - after complex family wranglings that are incomprehensible, and utterly arbitrary, to two little girls - and each is taken to live with relatives: Anna to a village in Germany with a suitably wicked step-aunt who treats her as little better than slave labour; Lotte to a life of musical middle-class Dutch privilege. Reading these early sections, I couldn't help but feel as if the separation might have had more impact had we spent more time with the girls when they were together, seeing their closeness through more than snapshots and statements. In addition, the fact that the novel opens with elderly Lotte's "distaste" and "reserve" when greeted with her sister, while perhaps creating some suspense about the revelations to come, rather undermines the intimacy and immediacy of the childhood scenes that follow. The past is never made to feel as real as the present.
Indeed, the separation is treated less like the traumatic beginning to these characters' stories, the shaping moment of their lives, and more like the set-up for a thought experiment: what if? Anna signals this:
Anna sprang up. "Who says we have to behave as though nothing is the matter? I was brought up in a culture you detest. You escaped from it just in time. Let me tell you how your life would have turned out if you had stayed."
That the pair would launch into a discussion of their respective lives does make a certain sort of sense, since the past is undoubtedly something both women have made and remade in their memories over the years. Self-justification, and the conviction of each woman that she has more to lament than the other, colours all their interactions in the present. Lotte finds it hard to credit Anna's description of the cruelties of her step-aunt ("Wasn't Anna exaggerating? Had time distorted her memories? [...] It was all so extreme. Lotte regarded malicious, violent behaviour as a sickness, to be cordoned off safely and kept at a distance"), but it is clear that at least some of her incredulity comes from repressed guilt. (I did wonder, myself, to what extent Anna is a reliable narrator of her past: her self-presentation in the flashbacks as a quiet, self-possessed near-martyr does not track with the brash, crude Anna we see either through Lotte's eyes before the separation, or in the present.)
Furthermore, Lotte has apparently never given much thought to how her own pre-war way of life was sustained. In a telling moment, she reacts with outrage to the sight of a grand old house in Spa gone to ruin; when Anna points out that running such a household requires a large staff and enormous utility bills, she is annoyed at the "pragmatism" and responds, rather petulantly, that "'Everything of beauty is disappearing'". It does not occur to her that dismissing the appeal of Hitler is in some sense an expression of her privilege, because she was never desperate enough to want what Nazism offered to ordinary Germans - indeed, she never had to consider that it might offer anything:
"Hitler would not have got a foothold with us despite the depression..."
"But you hadn't had your confidence taken away like we had. He, this buffoon, gave it back to us. With his marches, party rallies, his speeches. With the most impressive Olympic Games of all time. The foreigners stood cheering on the tribune and Herr Hitler was host to the world. No one was saying, You're no good."
But Lotte also has a more pressing and painful source of hindsight on the matter: her family sheltered a number of Jews during the war, and her lover during that period, Daniel, was a Jewish victim of the Nazis. It is virtually impossible, therefore, for her to imagine that under different circumstances she, too, might have acted differently.
Of course, there is a vast gulf between acting differently - acting less morally - because of circumstances, and such actions being justifiable or forgivable. Anna is hyper-aware of the shadows of Nazism and the blame that attaches to her, as a German who lived through those times and did not question or resist what was going on. Throughout the present-day sections, she vacillates in her response to this awareness. On the one hand she offers herself up, passive-aggressively and thus emptily, as a target for Lotte's anger and grief ("'I am the obvious person, I offer myself, I've certainly stood in hotter fires in my life,'" careful to get in another little dig about how much she has suffered, too; "'You have been projecting all that rage onto me for days, selbstverständlich. [...] Go on, blame me!'"). On the other hand, she tries to explain, and excuse, her complicity in the regime:
"At some point they disappeared: there were no more Jews in our village. No Rosenbaum came to buy cattle any more; a Christian cattle dealer took his place, without ceremony. Yet I never asked: where has the Rosenbaum family gone? Never, you understand. Nobody ever asked anything, not even my uncle."
"What did happen to that family?"
"I don't know! It's true when people say 'we did not know'. But why didn't we know? Because it didn't interest us at all! I reproach myself, now, that I didn't ask: where have they gone?"
There's no sign, of course, that her subsequent self-reproach has extended to making the effort to find out where they went. It would be a formality, certainly, since there can be little doubt what happened to them - but Anna, it seems, finds it easier to self-flagellate than to engage with the notion of the individuals (except, in a limited way, her sister) she harmed, even if only by inaction.
One of the most compelling aspects of the book, in fact, is the characterisation of Anna - at least when she is allowed to stand out, raw and damaged, from the thought-experiment. Just as she accuses Lotte of doing, Anna harbours anger and projects it onto Lotte. It seems to me that Anna's anger, though, is directed not at the fact that the circumstances of her life were so different from Lotte's. Rather, Anna is angry that, having been placed in those circumstances, she was presented with a moral test that Lotte was protected from - one that, indeed, Lotte cannot or will not conceive of - and she failed at it. Her real anger, inarticulate though it is, is directed at herself; meeting Lotte again brings it out, because Lotte is a symbol of how Anna failed:
"I'm telling you honestly ... I really do not know what that is ... family .. or a special family feeling. I'm sorry, but now that you've suddenly returned like a female Lazarus I don't know what to do with you ... Long ago I had already reconciled myself to my fate of being alone on this earth ... I belong to no-one, no-one belongs to me, those are the facts ... I have nothing to offer you..."
"But yet we're ... we have the same parents..." Lotte repudiated weakly, "that must count for something surely? In order to know who we are we must surely know ... how it all began?"
"I know who I am: nobody. That suits me very well!" Bitterness shimmered through her provocative position, making her voice loud and rough. Some passengers looked round. Lotte remained silent, intimidated, she was in a cold sweat. Again she had the feeling that Anna was blaming her. But for what? For still being alive? For wanting to give the term 'sister' meaning?
(There's that clumsiness of phrasing again: "repudiated weakly" is a jarring and unnecessary substitute for 'said' here, and again the overall effect is of melodramatic display rather than inward insight.)
Although she never says as much, it's clear (at least to me) that Anna is hoping for forgiveness from Lotte - that all her justifications and the grim tales of her childhood are an attempt to get someone to understand, and excuse. She does not get it, although as she dies Lotte does, at the last, acknowledge Anna as her sister, closing the distance between them.
There is considerable irony in the realisation Anna reaches after the war, when faced with the hostility of a bus full of non-Germans; having attempted to blurt an apology/denial, and been met with a wall of silence, she "sensed for the first time what it would mean to be a German from now on. To be found guilty by people who knew nothing about you. Not to be seen as an individual but as a specimen of a type". My immediate thought was: yes, not unlike the situation faced by Jews in Nazi-occupied territories during the war. Which is not to say that such pre-judgement is correct, or not hurtful, whoever does it; only that Anna perhaps has less room to be surprised by it than she would like to believe.
The best and most subtle illustration of the faultlines left in (Dutch) society by Nazism comes, in fact, not from the sisters' experiences at all, but from an encounter between a young Jewish man whom Lotte's family has sheltered, and the neighbour in another part of town who was entrusted with looking after his family's possessions while they were in hiding. It is the very end of the war, and the young man cycles, excitedly, to the old house. While he is overjoyed at the prospect of his family home restored (albeit minus his late father), the neighbour is frostily determined to hang on to her war-born windfall. First she tries lying:
"Your father gave them to me," she corrected sharply. "I can still hear him saying: Liesbeth, have these things, we have no use for them anymore, they are nothing but ballast to us."
Then she grows defensive:
"I have nothing to discuss with your mother," she said haughtily. The knuckles of her hands were white, gripping the edge of the table. "Listen," she blurted out, "other people have been living in your house for years. The world has changed and we have all had to adapt, and now you come here out of the blue thinking that everything will be the same as it was..."
I was left feeling that I wish I'd seen more of this, and less of the elaborate, and somewhat artificial, balancing act of the two sisters. Ultimately, the events described were simply too big and too painful for either the detachment or the portentousness with which the book weighs one life against another. I wanted individuals, and at times (especially in Anna's complex story), I found them; but all too often, what I got were not people but symbols. And in a book whose backdrop is the horrors of a depersonalising political ideology, that seems a mistake.