Politics & Society

The best books on Forgiveness

recommended by Simon Mawer

Novelist Simon Mawer picks his favourite books on forgiveness.

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Your first book is The Blind Side of the Heart by Julia Franck.

This book starts with the idea of a woman abandoning her nine-year-old son at a railway station. That is the first chapter. Then what the book does is to give you the story behind all that, which is her career as a nurse. She falls in love with someone who dies and then she marries again, but unhappily, to a man who turns into a Nazi supporter. The setting is Germany before and during the Second World War and she is Jewish.
It is written in a matter-of-fact sort of way and it doesn’t really adopt any sort of position on the ideas of forgiveness. But the reason I thought of it in respect to forgiveness, or what could better be described as acceptance, is because it brings up this question of the Jewish attitude towards the Germans and the Nazis, which has always struck me as being a very interesting one.

The woman in the book seems to just get by; she just has to run her life as best she can. She is a nurse and she sees the whole of the collapse of Germany in 1945 as the Allies move in from both sides. The book doesn’t adopt a moral position in any way. It implies an acceptance: that is what happened, not that it was good, but it simply happened.

Right at the end of the book there is the possibility of her being reunited with her abandoned child, but the son, now a teenager, refuses to see her. There was no forgiveness from him, despite the fact that she maintains that she abandoned him for justifiable reasons.

I am actually appearing with the author, Julia Franck, at Jewish Book Week in London next week.

Your next book is The Game of Opposites by Norman Lebrecht.

Again, this book is by someone who is appearing at Jewish Book Week, which, again, is why I have been reading it. It is set in post-war Germany, although the name ‘Germany’ is never mentioned. However, that is clearly the country. And it is the story of a man who is a prisoner in a concentration camp. Right at the end of the war he escapes from the camp and is sheltered in a nearby village. This suggests that people are being noble and brave in sheltering him but in fact it is just one family that takes him in and he stays there after the war and marries into the family.

The villagers are considered by other inmates of the prison camp to have been anything but decent towards them but the protagonist has a very successful post-war life, ultimately becoming mayor of the village and turning it into a prosperous town.

And so where is the theme of acceptance in this book?

Well, he does meet up with other inmates from the concentration camp who have very different post-war experiences. I suppose they are rather accusatory towards him for having done so well. Both these books show this considerable degree of acceptance of the circumstances which is something you don’t often hear about that much. Of course, there was a great deal of acceptance going on in the post-war period; people had to get on with their lives.

Tell me about The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

This is one of the greatest books that I know. It is beautifully done. There is an anonymous narrator who is clearly based on Giorgio Bassani’s own experiences. Again, it is an oblique look at the fate of European Jews. The story is about a group of young Jews in Ferrara in north-eastern Italy, thrown together by the race laws which the Fascists passed just before the war. The central relationship is between the girl Micol Finzi-Contini and the narrator himself. Her family is extremely grand and very reserved. They have a very large house in a magnificent park. The title calls it the ‘garden’ of the Finzi- Continis but ‘park’ would do it more justice. During their childhood days the narrator couldn’t really aspire to knowing them but circumstances – the race laws – throw them together: excluded from the local tennis club because they are Jews, they start their own tennis group, meeting in the Finzi-Contini garden. Under these at first idyllic circumstances the narrator falls for Micol. It’s a heart-breaking relationship because it’s not entirely reciprocated; or at least you never know to what degree it is reciprocated by the enigmatic Micol.

Ultimately the family does get swept away into the Holocaust, but this happens after the events narrated in the book. Bassani himself survived the war because he joined the resistance. One imagines that many of his friends disappeared the same way as the Finzi-Continis. Throughout the book you know what is going to happen but the family’s fate is never spelt out.

Which makes it all the more poignant?

Yes, and the relationship between him and Micol is extremely moving. And also his friendship with her father who is a very retiring academic. Again, the theme here is acceptance. The narrator is ultimately rejected by Micol and there is a personal forgiveness from him, I suppose, forgiveness in principle at least, although she is not there to receive it. Throughout the book he is trying to deal with the fact that she rejects him, but he also suspects that she might have had an affair with one of their friends.

La Tregua or The Truce by Primo Levi is your next choice.

La Tregua is an extraordinary book. Levi wrote his first book, If This Is a Man, immediately after being repatriated to Italy after his time in Auschwitz, so that book was much more vivid. He wrote this book 20 years later and it is much more considered and, in many ways, more carefully constructed. The events occur after the liberation of Auschwitz and the book is almost a picaresque novel. Initially the prisoners are kept in the camp, but they are fed and more or less looked after. It’s a very curious slant on the whole period and is actually very funny in places. Later he undergoes this extraordinary odyssey around central Europe, being shifted here and there by the Russians over a period of about almost a year.

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The Russians were dealing with so many displaced people and Levi is actually extremely complimentary towards the Russian army. Again, there is this acceptance. The question of forgiveness is an extremely difficult one. Primo Levi was directly involved as a victim. Giorgio Bassani was involved slightly less directly because he was never imprisoned although he had to take to the hills to escape the Fascists. None of them actually in any way say ‘I forgive’, but they do accept their past.

And do they make peace with it?

I think yes for Bassani, but with Primo Levi you never really know. There is this mystery surrounding his death: did he commit suicide or not? I once sat next to his sister at a dinner party but feebly didn’t dare address the question directly as to what she thought had happened, although I believe the family think that his death was an accident.

Your last book, Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby, looks at the time he spent in Italy during the war.

This is very personal. There is a great moment where Newby returns to the place where he was sheltered when he was an escaped prisoner of war. At the time he only had a few months of freedom, moving from house to house and working almost as a sort of slave labourer on a mountain farm. There were searches going on for escaped prisoners and the villagers tried to hide him and ultimately built him a refuge in which he lived. Finally he was betrayed and recaptured. In the epilogue he goes back after the war to see them all. At one point he is asked whether he wants to know who betrayed him because the other villagers have found out. The man tells Newby that his betrayer was sitting quite near him the day before at dinner: does he want to know who it was? And Eric Newby says, ‘No, I really don’t. There have been enough accusations and counter-accusations. Just let it be.’ That is acceptance, but is it forgiveness?

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I think the great act of forgiveness in literary terms is Christ’s forgiveness on the cross, when he looks down and says, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’ The qualification – their ignorance – is presumably why they are forgiven.  However, all the people in these books knew damn well what they were doing. The betrayer of Eric Newby knew. Apparently he betrayed him because he was a convinced Fascist and he came round to the view that he shouldn’t cease to be a Fascist just because the Fascists were losing the war. He believed in Fascism and this Englishman was an enemy of Fascism and should therefore be handed over to the authorities. That was the rationale, and that made it a very conscious act. Would Christ have said, ‘Father forgive them, even if they know exactly what they are doing?’ I don’t know. Similarly, with the Nazis destroying European Jews: the Nazis knew exactly what they were doing. Should they be forgiven?

February 23, 2012

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Simon Mawer

Simon Mawer

Simon Mawer published his first novel 21 years ago and has since written seven others and two works of non-fiction. He is a trained biologist and has lived and worked in Italy for the last 30 years. Perhaps these two facts bring a different slant to his approach to writing, which The Economist has described as having ‘an inquisitive and quite un-English interest in history and science’.

Simon Mawer

Simon Mawer

Simon Mawer published his first novel 21 years ago and has since written seven others and two works of non-fiction. He is a trained biologist and has lived and worked in Italy for the last 30 years. Perhaps these two facts bring a different slant to his approach to writing, which The Economist has described as having ‘an inquisitive and quite un-English interest in history and science’.