Even now, perhaps most especially today, understanding the events of the first half of the twentieth century has a significance that we cannot possibly afford to ignore. The way to the trauma, evil and pain, to the sociohistorical origins, causes, sociodynamics and pitfalls, and to the portents and lacunae we overlooked to our horrific detriment, contains the signs and warnings for any time – to many minds, most vitally for our own moment in history, in being itself. It is quintessentially a subject of ethical study, historical research, cultural reassessment, literary anxiety and artistic urgency. Of a redefinition and re-evaluation of all we deem human. For Elisabeth Åsbrink, it is the quest of a life, professionally and existentially. 1947: When Now Begins follows hard upon her 2011 novel Och i Wienerwald står träden kvar (‘The trees still stand even in Vienna’s woods’), the story of 500 letters sent to a young boy who fled Austria for Sweden in 1939 by his family who remained behind.

The eerie synchronicity – and timeless human resonance – of that earlier novel transforms into menace, thriller and denunciation in 1947 – a historical essay where fiction becomes the voice of all the truth we sometimes choose not to acknowledge. What makes Åsbrink’s book unique is that it is not about what preceded the nefariousness of Nazism and Fascism, nor about the chilling, almost unnameable details of what they both stood for. Åsbrink’s gaze, stern, doleful, poetic, highly dramatic and solidly buttressed by evidence all at once, is directed at the fleeting yet decisive moment after: taking toll of the state of Europe and its colonial outposts after the war has ended, hers is a quo vadis enunciated relentlessly, addressed to victors, losers and victims alike, revealing new traumas, horrors and unheeded warnings of pain, devastation and darkness.

1947 is written as a logbook of the memorable events of each of the twelve months of the year “when now begins”. Each chapter selects a particular focus to evoke, increasingly interweaving the strands of narrative and history into a tapestry of tremendous proportions; into a still life capturing the momentousness, the disquiet and immovability of that point in time between then and now, when all that could have happened differently did not always do so; when everything that ought never to have happened again suddenly seems to have become the only option taken by a world in ruins, in a state of frenzy, in the throes of cold fury and an even colder conscience, often in the hands of those who should have been rendered powerless.

Something happened. Nothing can be forgotten. Everything must be assessed, accounted for, given a voice beyond obliteration and oblivion.”

Åsbrink ‘walks’ across the globe very much like Diogenes carrying his lamp with ironic hope, or Primo Levi’s narrator in this year’s If This Is a Man, desperately, hopelessly, staunchly seeking the remnants of an obliterated humanity. Like a ghostly figure roaming across a battlefield after the battle has been won or lost, counting casualties on every side, taking account of any scrap of life or material resource that remains, she shifts points of focus from the very small and ostensibly trivial to the momentously great, which becomes, terrifyingly in most cases, the elephant in the room. She is not a neutral or disinterested observer, a cartographer of the new territories for the future or a surveyor reporting to some unrevealed contractor of history. Åsbrink progresses through the reams of evidence, across the landscapes of Europe, the Middle East, Asia or America with a pair of scales doggedly in hand. Something happened. Nothing can be forgotten. Everything must be assessed, accounted for, given a voice beyond obliteration and oblivion. In 1947, “human rights are non-existent and hardly anyone has heard of the crime of genocide. Those who survived have only just begun to count their dead. Many travel home, without finding it; others travel anywhere except back where they came from.”

A small country like Greece, which “lost a third of its forests during the German occupation. [Where] over a thousand villages… have been burned to the ground” following Germany’s scorched earth tactic looms as large in Åsbrink’s focus as Raphael Lemkin’s fraught efforts to secure legal, formal, moral recognition for the new categories of crimes emerging after the war: “there were no old crimes in existence that covered the recent violence.” A new word, a dedicated legal term is needed, genocide. Her analysis loses no precision, resolve or dramatic significance by exposing not one but multiple fronts of new threats, of directions taken by individuals or by nations which will haunt us today. In 1947 the Islamic Brotherhood is born; and we see the genealogy, the fiendishly manipulated narrative behind it, which we now face as the Islamic State. Also in 1947 the Indian subcontinent is separated into two nations – Åsbrink takes us behind the scenes, colonial as well as indigenous, she revives the voices that remained secret or were not heard, the booming cries that covered up all the others. In that same year the fate of Israel and Palestine begins to be sealed – or unsealed, depending on the point of view, on the sincerity with which we stand ourselves before stories as well as history, fates as well as destinies.

In Germany, those who had been the harbingers of the Reich’s ‘historic call’ must now confront the lot of anonymity, of clandestine, yet by no means altered prospects. No revising of ideologies, of ethics, of values and of the consequences of conscience takes place in their hearts and minds, yet a new term (not legal in this case, yet omnipotent) emerges here as well: historical revisionism, the denial of all that happened, the skilled, crafty substitution of truth by carefully conjured, epidemically disseminated doubts, obfuscations, downright lies. The many who were left over from the old regime (neo-Nazi is a term that came into existence in France in 1952, in Åsbrink’s Sweden in 1956) have now a new urgent project: that of reforming memory, of originary myths, of the value of the false and of the real. As nations and individuals select their angles of vision, “memories [are] created and nations’ self-images reconstructed. Memory gaps are established.” Mind-bending networks emerge to help not the victims but the perpetrators of the most atrocious crimes. The reality of Nazi acts, thoughts, ideology, vision are “reduced from what had probably happened to what can be proven… What most likely happened is brushed aside… Under the quagmire of oblivion the war rebuilds itself.”

The narrative device of time as history, as a definer of life, as a cultural strategy of domination, of time as a measuring mechanism of the right to being (both bombs and clocks are pivots in this chronological distillation of a year), reflects our own relationship to agency and inevitability, to intelligence and to a greedily sought supremacy of reason, to others – the elect, the displaced, the faceless, our enemies and kith and kin. To angels and monsters. From events that changed the course of history – or forged it anew altogether, we are jolted to parallel realities of interest or disjunctive insignificance: from Christian Dior’s New Look and the almost hypnotic efforts of a world to begin afresh from a tabula rasa, to a relentless demythologising of Simone de Beauvoir and her own self-importance. Just as consciences oscillated, so does Åsbrink’s plane of vision vacillate – with unyielding purpose. She possesses a unique style that is lyrical, dreamy and epigrammatic at the same time. Her words carry a cadence of historic momentum and prophecy, at times a certain determinism. She writes with a fearless strategy of shock, with audacity, with a will to provoke so as to awaken.

Trauma can be inherited, Åsbrink seems to say, not just the recollection of events and experiences but also the physical reality and especially the moral responsibility.”

Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism (the “only American mentioned by name in Mein Kampf”) is the sting causing us to look closely and painfully at the refugee crisis of yesterday and of today. The Jews who survived (barely, horrifically) the appalling drive for their extermination, still have no place in a post-war reality. They cannot flee, they cannot stay. In Åsbrink’s subtext, they can almost neither live nor die. From Thomas Mann’s Dr Faustus where the devil’s pact is Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘autarkic’ music (a parable for so much more), to George Orwell’s 1984 or Nelly Sachs’ poems, or Primo Levi’s chronicle of Auschwitz, rejected by no less than six publishers, we are hurled mentally and ethically to Maurice Bardèche’s Lettre à François Mauriac, where he will argue that “the courage and suffering of the German people deserves respect, [saying] what no one else is saying… that the evidence of a genocide of the Jews is forged. Of course Jews died, but that was the result of starvation, and illness, not of murder.” With chilling meticulousness, Åsbrink picks out details after detail of how everything happened, still happens, how the Muslim Brotherhood and Nazism had already met, are in constant concord, are essentially “echoes of Fascism from one continent to another.” She is as undaunted by the minutiae of the talks on a Jewish and an Arab future in Palestine. She does not flinch, does not silence, always aware of the black irony of mirror images, a constant reminder of what was lost in the quest for something to be gained.

Imagine a cinema with multiple screens, each of which plays a different film. The films are connected – they are the multiple facets of a single story, the story of modern humanity, or inhumanity. The viewers cannot watch the films in sequence. They must switch angles of vision constantly, retaining, if possible, all the connecting threads in their minds, following with their conscience every strand of the developing drama. The purpose of the screening is simultaneity, the experience of the past from a perspective that is not yet the future and yet is infused with all the tragic irony that future affords or entails. The viewers’ understanding will be commensurate to the power of their will to remember and to look synchronically, retrospectively, prophetically, with the trauma of missed signs.

Trauma can be inherited, Åsbrink seems to say, not just the recollection of events and experiences but also the physical reality and especially the moral responsibility. This unbreakable law of heredity is not a burden but a salutary evidence of our humanity. Our powers of sustaining empathy, of compassion across time and in time, are the only forces that can save us from ourselves. As Paul Ancel/Antschel/Celan will come to see, without this strength, “it is like killing the dead again, murdering the dead, again.”

Much of 1947: When Now Begins will make for unsettling, uncomfortable reading for many. This is a book that is like Socrates’ gadfly. It will not give up and it will not let go. It is grim, full of omens and an unshakable sense of doom, unyielding in its determination to separate right from wrong, good from evil. Yet it also possesses a music of haunting eternal harmony – much like Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel. It unites the personal story with the historical account, the everyday narrative with accountability. To accept the discomfort of 1947 and read on will lead to revelation, to clarity, and even perhaps to a glimpse at a solution. This is a truly remarkable book. A companion voice for anyone willing to listen beyond the fury of noise to the troubled quiet of truth.

 

Elisabeth_AsbrinkElisabeth Åsbrink is a Swedish journalist and author. Her previous books have won the August Prize, the Danish-Swedish Cultural Fund Prize, and the Ryszard Kapuscinski Award for Literary Reportage. 1947, translated by Fiona Graham, is the first of her works to be published in English, out now in hardback from Scribe.
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Fiona Graham has a degree in Modern Languages from Oxford, and has lived in Kenya, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Nicaragua, and Belgium. She translates from Spanish, French, Dutch, Swedish and German, and is the reviews editor at the Swedish Book Review.
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Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.

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