“I persist in believing that there has to be someone to bear the memory of us.”
Early on in The Ghost Keeper, a powerful historical novel written by Natalie Morrill that largely takes place in Vienna before and after the Second World War, one of the story’s characters shares this belief with a young Josef Tobak, the novel’s protagonist and narrator. It is not only a personal credo of responsibility, but also an ironic foreshadowing of the unimaginably horrific events that soon crash the lives of everyone in Europe, and elsewhere.
From a deeply embedded sense of attachment and duty, Josef undertakes to protect the dignity of the two Jewish cemeteries in Vienna. The term “ghosts,” however, does not refer to wailing spirits wafting round the crumbling headstones. Rather, it is an affecting metaphor for the remembrance of lives lived, loved and lost.
Swiftly and cruelly, events close in on Josef and his family. Germany has just annexed Austria. Josef has lost his job. He does not know it yet, but the reader knows he will soon lose much more. He is recovering from a serious illness at the home of his childhood friend and former employer, Friedrich. Now a member of the Nazi party, Friedrich urges Josef to convince his wife to leave the country:
“ ‘Tell them to go,’ he says. ‘They can’t afford to wait. Really, Josef. If you think it’s bad now –.’ He tails off, staring at the wall. My bedside light is on and it throws shadows across one side of his face. ‘What I mean is that I hear things,’ he says. ‘And if I were you, I would make them leave.’ ”
Acting on Friedrich’s advice, he speaks with his wife, Anna, by phone. He is still too unwell to leave his place of convalescence and safety. Anna believes that escaping to Vienna is the only way to save herself and her infant son, Tobias, but she is realistic about the difficulties and fearful of the result:
“It’s really very hard, Josef. You haven’t seen it. And it’s in the news, always – that these countries are full with refugees, and they’re done with it. They won’t take any more. It pleases these people very much, you know, to see that no one wants us. They’re practically singing.”
It is unknown whether the author intended it, but in reading these lines, one cannot help but hear an echo of the wrenching, angry debate about asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants stirring around the world today.
The scene in which Josef must separate from his wife and young son is particularly touching. Morrill’s talent is evident throughout the pages in which she describes the departure. This is how she sets it up:
“And now we stand with the trains hooting and hissing around us, these trains bound for everywhere and this train bound for Italy, which is where my wife and my son will go. The ship will meet them at Genoa. For a long, long while it will steam away east, into strange oceans, dragging its trail of foam like a spool of thread winding out from my heart.”
That this is Morrill’s debut novel is quite remarkable. She is relatively young, earning a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of British Columbia in 2013. Yet despite her youth, she has already received honours and distinctions for her prose and poetry.
The depth of Morrill’s observations are impressive. Time and again, she demonstrates a penetrating understanding and tender empathy of the incomprehensible suffering wrought by the Holocaust and by the countless, indescribable outrages of wartime.
She writes with special sensitivity about the predicament and inner anguish of the survivor. Here, for example, Morrill imagines responses and speculations from two generations of survivors.
Josef muses about the hold that memory has on him: “He hears words spoken in his wife’s voice: We don’t know. How none of them (the survivors) know what became of their dead, and how this unwritten page becomes a wound.”
On the other hand, Tobias, who was but an infant when things started to go south, has a different outlook: “Yet here, adamant, in its centre, is a part that says: We are survivors, aren’t we? And he would like for that to mean more than shell-shocked hauntedness – he would like it to mean victory. Because he is a young man with a future, this Tobias Tobak. And his family, he has decided, has a future as well.”
The historic events happen off the pages, so to speak. Yet we are acutely aware of the unfolding of the large and tragic events through Josef’s narration. Indeed, Morrill has adopted a narrative approach that is as risky as it is creative.
Josef speaks about himself variously in first and third person. He unfurls the details of the lives of the members of his family and of his friend, Friedrich. Or he speaks directly to the reader about himself – his thoughts, his feelings and his physical bearings – as the events in the first-person narrative are actually unfolding. It mostly works. At times, however, the inner depictions and explanations slow down the pace of the wider story.
Morrill is clearly familiar with biblical themes and even though she states that “the realm of the biblical means history,” she frequently adverts to theological notions that underpin those biblical ideas. For example, in an obvious reference to the story of Noah, Josef rhetorically asks, “My God, why don’t you wash the earth clean? Why don’t you start over completely anew?”
But starting completely anew, Josef knows, is impossible, as is the casting aside of memory, or the responsibility that accompanies remembering.
Morrill acknowledges that not everyone who has suffered or been victimized or brutalized can ultimately reach a sense of inner peace. But through Josef’s experiences, she observes, it is “such a relief to set a burden down, if one is, at last, permitted.” Equally important is the fact that Morrill goes to impressive literary lengths to make the final point: “Nothing need be carried alone.”
The Ghost Keeper is a very thoughtful book by a very gifted writer.