Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius

portrait_2000px-768x1217Fiction – print. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. Peirene Press, 2010. Originally published 2006. 125 pgs. Library copy.

In January 1943, a young, pregnant woman named Margherita takes a walk through the streets of Rome. Such a walk would be unremarkable where it not for the fact that she came to Rome to be with her husband, a member of the German Army fighting in North Africa. Her German nationality affords her certain benefits in Rome – a spot in a maternity home where food is plentiful – but also makes her a source of suspicion for the people she encounters on the streets.

During this roughly hour-long walk, Margherita confesses her most private thoughts: her view of impending motherhood, her memories of courtship with her husband, her dissatisfaction with how the Nazi regime has separated husband and wife once more. That last thought opens Margherita up to the idea that being a German under the Third Reich may not be an entirely harmonious existence.

Her time in the Hitler Youth told her that the Third Reich would win every military campaign, that her marriage to a German solider and impending motherhood would bring her great happiness. Now, though, food has become scarcer and the only city that seems safe from the Allied bombing campaign is Rome. (There’s no way the Americans and British would bomb such a holy city, right?)

This creeping uncertainty leaves Margherita uncomfortable with her new surroundings, and she spends the walk trying to reorient her thoughts to a happier, propaganda-filled view of Italy as a society and of Germany’s future. Margherita’s default to naivety makes for a contemplative read: Is this a form of self-preservation, the last influence of Nazi propaganda, or both? Did the Nazi adoption of religious iconography, which Margherita realizes in the course of her walk, make her as a religious person more susceptible to adherence?

For such a short walk (and an even shorter novella), Delius offers a number of intriguing observations about the formation of national identity through political propaganda and religion. I fear I only scratched the surface of this deeply contemplative book with my first read! And now I want to book a flight to Rome and talk a rambling walk of my own, thanks to the beauty of Delius’ writing.

On the topic of Delius’ writing, I have to say the stylistic presentation is quite unique. The story is printed as one long sentence lasting 125 pages, which sounds off-putting, but worked thanks to paragraph indentations and a ready number of commas. It adds rather than detracts from the lyrical nature of this novella.

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