Greg Zimmerman's Reviews > The History of History

The History of History by Ida Hattemer-Higgins
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Apr 21, 11

Read in April, 2011

The History of History, Ida Hattemer-Higgins' debut novel, is, simply put, an awe-inspiring piece of fiction. The genius of this fiercely intelligent novel — other than the fact that Hattemer-Higgins' prose is absolutely gorgeous — is that it's an unconventional, postmodern (fractured narrative, bizarre dream sequences, unreliable narrator) tale that still crackles with mystery and page-turning intrigue. It's the kind of novel you really only should read 20 to 30 pages at a time and then put down aside to digest and puzzle out the significance of what you've read. Normally, with "difficult" fiction, that's easy to do. Not here — it's a story with a magnetism that won't let you leave it.

Margaret Taub is a mid-20s American living in Berlin, Germany in the early 2000s. As the novel opens, Margaret stumbles out of a forest, not remembering how she got there. Fast-forward two years — Margaret has settled back into her life in Berlin as a history student and English-language tour guide, but still has a significant gap in her memory before and after emerging from the woods. One day, she receives a mysterious note addressed to Margaret Täubner, summoning her to an appointment with a Dr. Arabscheilis. Despite the fact that she thinks it's a mistake, Margaret goes, hoping for some clues about her missing memory.

Then, the novel really starts rolling. Margaret soon becomes obsessed with the story of Magda Goebbels, the wife of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. As the Russians were nearing in the final stages of World War II, Magda murdered her six children in Hitler's bunker before she and her husband committed suicide themselves. Margaret, who is haunted by visions of Magda all around Berlin, wants to try to understand why. Was it an act mercy, or an act of evil? In the course of her research, she stumbles across a clipping about a Jewish couple who also killed their three children before being deported to a camp. To Margaret, that seems to be more an act of mercy, when compared with Goebbels'. But when is killing your own children ever morally justifiable?

Intrigued by Dr. Arabscheilis' wisdom after their first meeting, and becoming increasingly unmoored, Margaret returns frequently to the doctor who becomes her spiritual guide/guru. The doctor, an old woman with a giant head, is a wonderful character, imparting advice and constantly speaking in dichotomy (difference between story and memory, difference between anestheticizing memories vs. aesthetizing them). At one point, Dr. Arabscheilis tells her:

"You, my pet, are having an identity crisis that has become moral despair. It is impossible for the human animal to remember his or her own life without cleaving a line, a line of some kind, however capriciously zigzag, lazy, narcissistic, arrogant or, on the other hand, self-blaming and unforgiving, between right and wrong, credit and blame."

The novel's intricate plotting and Margaret's obsession with history allows it to deal with a number of heady moral and philosophical issues, all the while bringing us along at a pretty fast pace as Margaret tries to figure out what happened to her...or what it was that she did. Throughout the book, we're constantly wondering about Margaret's sanity. Are her visions — Berlin's buildings turned to flesh, Magda Goebbels in the form of "hawk-woman," playing a weeks-long game of Hearts with a ghost — a product of her declining mental faculties, or simply beautiful dreams? "And a sense of beauty, my pet, to each his own, is the weir that staunches the flow of madness," the doctor tells Margaret in the later stages of the novel. The degree of Margaret's madness is the riddle Hattemer-Higgins presents her readers, and even at the novel's shocking, stupefying conclusion, that's never really clear.

Sadly, this novel — published in January 2011 — remains obscure to most readers. Most likely, that's attributable to the fact that many readers hear "difficult" and run screaming towards Dan Brown. But this novel isn't difficult in the Gravity's Rainbow or Ulysses sense. In fact, it's not difficult at all — it's just that it does require a fair amount of thought and concentration to get the most return on the reading investment. And even then, it almost certainly requires a second reading to decipher all the symbolism and philosophizing. Still, this is high-concept fiction of the highest order, and therefore, highly, highly recommended!
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