Mount Taygetus

Anna Dziewit-Meller
Mount Taygetus
  • Wielka Litera
    Warszawa 2016
    135 x 205
    350 pp
    ISBN: 978-83-8032-071-0

The latter half of Dziewit-Meller's new novel, as in her previous Disco, deals with children. But while her debut novel is set in contemporary times, here the main focus is on history and the wartime recollections of the suffering of victims who never publicly take the floor. Dziewit-Meller asks us to remember those who perished or fell victim to war: this novel's main protagonists are raped Silesian girls and “defective” children. The contemporary society (as represented by the young father), which has no memory of this suffering, is a supporting protagonist.

The mountain in the title refers to a mountain range from whose cliffs, according to Plutarch, the Spartans tossed handicapped children, having established their condition confirmed at their births. This ancient selection process is resurrected in the pages of this novel in various ways.  During the war, in a hospital in Lubliniec, children whose existence was thought to be a threat to the eugenic purity of the race were rounded up. They were given conditions that hastened their deaths – cold showers paved the way for lung inflammations which were left untreated, so that beds were swiftly freed up for more underage patients. The hardier children were given Luminal, and Doctor Gertura Luben conducted experiments on their bodies to further what she believed was the development of science. Doctor Luben, who survived the war, was acquitted by the courts in West Germany, much like many other psychiatrists, doctors and scholars. Now an old woman, living out her last days in peace, she is visited by a young journalist, but he is unable to stir her conscience, to make her doubt. The doctor, who has devoted all her life to scientific research, is not ready to question the propriety of her actions, let alone to confess to her guilt. It is she, seeking justification for her actions in a broader cultural context, who reads a fragment of Plutarch to the journalist. In this way, ancient eugenics sanction operation T34, in which all those “unworthy to live” in Nazi Germany were eliminated. Ryś, one of the characters in the novel, winds up in this hospital in the early 1940s, abandoned by his mother's new husband, unwanted at home. It is from his perspective that Dziewit-Meller describes the hospital and the sadistic, pseudo-scientific experiments.

Another tale of suffering is told by Zefka, a Silesian girl from an impoverished family who returns home from working in the Reich shortly before the Red Army marches in. Raped by several soldiers, she is made pregnant. She can have an abortion, because special institutions solving wartime rape-related problems are functioning in the new structures of the Polish government. Zefka only has to say that she does not know who the child's father is; she cannot admit, however, that the Red Army is responsible for the rape, as no shadow of suspicion can fall on the devotion of their brothers in arms. Zefka is haunted by these memories of rape and humiliation all her life, as well as her longing for a child – which is why, lying on a stretcher, she gently touches the belly of her young, pregnant relative.

In the history of a single society, Dziewit-Meller weaves together different kinds of civil wartime suffering. Her protagonists are not soldiers; there are no soldiers' recollections at all here, no manly sacrifice. She is interested in the civilian experience, the experience of the weak, which occupies a remote place in the collective consciousness. Sebastian, who has inherited a pharmacy from his father, has become sensitive to images of suffering with the recent birth of his daughter; he discovers to his horror that it was in the hospital where he was born that an operation to exterminate children was carried out, 200 of whom died, and that the people aware of these events do not find them particularly significant.

Mount Taygetus foregrounds the stories of those who call out for neither justice nor memory; those whose fates, although tragic, are pushed into the shadows by tales of the Holocaust. A problem that forever torments the author is not only oblivion and the repetition of certain experiences, but also a certain arithmetic of suffering, the capacity of human memory to accept histories burdened with the heaviest degree of significance and emotion, and a lack of language for victims to speak of their fates. The Holocaust and the soldier's view of war are two sorts of tales that overwhelm our memories, leaving little room for other narratives. Dziewit-Meller addresses these subjects.

- Paulina Małochleb