Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


A Woman in Berlin

Französiche Dom, Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin

I love Berlin. It is so fresh, vibrant and exciting that you feel you are soaking up innovation, ideas and history through your pores as you walk the streets. Berlin has not papered over its cracks, so you see remnants of the Second World War (the bombed-out carcass of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche) and the Cold War (the long, chilly footprint of the Wall) everywhere. I learned that none of the trees in the Tiergarten are more than sixty years old, because the previous forest was razed for firewood in the dying days of the war, and in the freezing winters afterwards.

But this is not about me. During my last visit, I fell upon an amazing book – A Woman in Berlin – a diary of a woman who details her life in the falling city as it was sacked by the Russian army. It starts on 20 April 1945 and ends on 22 June 1945. The writer, who has recently died, chose to remain anonymous when it was published, and the book received controversy, especially in Germany where it was accused of “besmirching the honour of German women.” As you read, you understand why the book might have been hard to swallow in the 1960s. Not only does she describes in exact and excruciating detail what it is like to live in a city under attack: the scrabbling for food, the nauseating fear of being bombed, the chilling anxiety of waiting for the Russians to arrive, but she deals very frankly with the mass rapes that took place, saying that the women began to ask each other not “Were you … ?” but “How many times … ?”.

According to the introduction, over 160 000 Berlin women were raped as the Russians swept through the city. They were considered an acceptable booty for the travails of being a soldier, and all women of all ages are targetted. People in the writer’s apartment building spirited their daughters away in crawl spaces, while only the oldest women ventured out into the streets to fetch water. The writer herself is not spared, and she finally makes a Faustian pact, singling out the most senior – and potentially most cultured and gentlemanly – Russian officer she can find to act as protector. In exchange for sexual favours, she receives food which she shares with the elderly and ailing residents of the building. What Berlin’s liberators come to call “forced intercourse” becomes her only method of survival.

The writer is a journalist and photographer, and her prose builds unforgettable images of war. This means the book can be hard going, since the subject matter is almost unbearable, but it is leavened with her salty sense of humour and astonishing courage.

Here is one excerpt that moved me with its prescience:

I barely glanced at the news from the western front. What does it matter to us now? Our fate is rolling in from the east and it will transfer the climate, like another Ice Age.

On hunger:

I found a letter wedged inside a drawer, addressed to the real tenant. I felt ashamed for reading it, but I read it all the same. A passionate love letter, which I flushed down the toilet. (Most of the time we still have water.) Heart, hurt, love, desire: how foreign, how distant these words sound now. Evidently a sophisticated, discriminating love-life requires three square meals a day. My sole concern as I write these lines is my stomach. All thinking and feeling, all wishes and hopes begin with food.

On the futility of technology:

Our radio’s been dead for four days. Once again we see what a dubious blessing technology really is. Machines with no intrinsic value, worthless if you can’t plug them in somewhere. Bread, however, is absolute. Coal is absolute. And gold is gold whether you’re in Rome, Peru or Breslau. But radios, gas stoves, central heating, hot plates, all these gifts of the modern age – they’re nothing but dead weight if the power goes out. At the moment we’re marching backwards in time. Cave dwellers.

This is a powerful and heart-rending book. It’s also an amazing piece of social history and now that Germany has learnt to be more open about its past, now that other countries have faced up to their roles in the making of war, this is a good time time to be reading this book. It may deal with a very short and very specific period in German history, but it talks to all of us about how far we will go when we are starving, about the bleak impact war has on civilians and about the small sparks of humanity that help people to survive when that seems impossible.


Half of a Yellow Sun

Shortly before Christmas, the charismatic Jacob Zuma won the leadership of the ANC from under the nose of South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki. Where Zuma is a people’s person, educated by the university of life and a champion of the poor, Mbeki is cold, intellectual and apparently incapable of showing compassion to those who suffer. Zuma is also a Zulu, South Africa’s largest ethnic group, while Mbeki is Xhosa – the same tribe as Nelson Mandela. Zuma was acquitted of rape in 2006, but is due to stand trial for corruption later this year. It has not taken South Africa’s political analysts long to begin imagining the worst case scenarios should the popular ANC leader be found guilty. Taken alongside the violent protests against Kenya’s apparently rigged elections, it is clear that in Africa tribal loyalties are not to be taken lightly.

How strange then, to have this so acutely in mind as I read Chimimanda’s Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant Half of a Yellow Sun. The novel takes a group of characters through the Nigerian-Biafran war of 1967-70, where after a short-lived coup by Igbo officers in the Nigerian army, Igbo people living in the north of Nigeria were sought out and massacred. The Igbo responded by declaring their southern part of the country an independent state, which they called Biafra. Blockaded and bombed, they were eventually overpowered and Biafra was returned to Nigeria. However, the Nigerians’ most powerful weapon against the Biafrans was starvation, and the enduring image of that war is of tiny children, with the sticklike limbs and severely bloated bellies that denote kwashiorkor, or malnutrition.

While Adichie admits in the author interview at the back of my copy of the book that she changed certain small details, she remains true to the central events of the time. In this way, Half of a Yellow Sun was a history lesson for me – it brought to life a war that was happening as I was conceived and born, a war that for me was more the haunting eyes of starvation than the attempts of a people to create their own nation. But it is so much more than the dry bones of history. Adichie fleshes out her story with a set of characters as different from each other as their human need to survive is the same.

The story is largely seen through the eyes of three people. There is Ugwu, the houseboy brought in from the country to tend to the needs of the professor Odenigbo. Ugwu is about thirteen (no-one is really sure) and has passed the equivalent of Grade Four, but shows such a natural intelligence in his tasks that the professor allows him to continue his education. While this education happens largely offstage, Ugwu’s growing understanding of the world around him, of people, his compassion and love for the family that he serves clearly indicates his progression. Late in the novel, he joins his mistress Olanna in teaching children in the refugee camp where the family work – a development that shows he is no longer servile but a beloved equal.

Olanna, daughter of a chief, is the novel’s second main protagonist. She disdains the wealth and rarefied social life her parents offer her to live in the provincial town of Nsukka with her “revolutionary lover” Odenigbo and teach in the university there. She swallows her pride to adopt Odenigbo’s love-child, Baby, to whom she and Ugwu both become devoted slaves. While she adores her husband, she watches with a distaste that is hard to contain as his revolutionary fervour becomes fervour for alcohol. Odenigbo, it seems, is one of those hardline theorists whose theories drift away like gunpowder after the first shots are fired. It was not that she wanted him to go to war to prove his love for her, but that the war, and Biafra’s losing of it, took away from him the strength and manliness that in peacetime he appeared to possess.

The third protagonist is the Englishman, Richard, who drifts to Nigeria in the guise of being a writer. He very soon becomes enamoured of Olanna’s powerful and enigmatic sister Kainene, and shifts away from the superficial expat world of parties, cocktails and sexual favours to be her live-in lover. They never marry, but he turns to calling her his wife. Richard loves the Igbo, their culture and customs, and during the war is used by the army as a one-man propaganda machine. He is the outsider dying to be the insider, and he proves his devotion by staying the course of the war instead running away with the other expats. He speaks the language of the Igbo and speaks for the Igbo as a writer.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a hard book to read in that the descriptions of suffering are acute and painful. Rape – a ghastly tool of war – is also present, as are starvation, tragedy and deprivation. But Adichie’s characters are redemptive as they survive and cope, by helping others and receiving help from those more fortunate than themselves. Olanna and Kainene start the book disengaged from each other, become estranged during the course of the story and then are bound together once again in twinship and kinship. They build around themselves a small tribe of husbands, children and servants, as well the desperately ill and dying for whom they care in the refugee camp. I hope I’m not misrepresenting the book: while the subject matter is tough and Adichie does not flinch from addressing it, it is thread through with a sly and teasing humour. (At one point, Kainene says of Harrison, her houseboy, who cooks up some lizards for the family: ‘”You’d think it was roast beef, the way he’s going on about it.”‘)

Adichie is a powerful writer. Her prose never flags; it is glittering and strong. Here is a passage where Alice, a neighbour, discovers that her family have all been killed in her hometown:

She was strengthened, emboldened, by the madness of grief and she fought off everyone who tried to hold her. She rolled on the ground with such force that the stones cut her skin in tiny red gashes. The neighbours said oh and shook their heads. Odenigbo came out of the room then and went over and picked Alice up and held her, and she stayed still and began to weep, her head resting on his shoulder. Olanna watched them. There was a familiar melding to the curve of Odenigbo’s arms around Alice. He held her with the ease of someone who had held her before.

There are two things happening here. Firstly, the tiny gashes on Alice’s skin echo the machete wounds which Olanna witnesses when members of her family are murdered in the north at the beginning of the novel. The horror of war is underscored once again for Olanna, while simultaneously she realises that her husband has been sleeping with Alice. For Olanna, the degradation of war and the humiliation of her husband being unfaithful to her are one.

Aidichie says fiction is the soul of history, and this is what she achieves in her wonderful book: bringing humanity and soul to an African conflict that has long been relegated to the history books. She wraps and envelops you in her story, and sweeps you along inexorably to the end. I had the shivery feeling throughout that I was watching the birth of a classic, and I am delighted beyond adequate expression that Africa has produced another writer of her calibre and sensitivity. I think this book will be taught in schools and universities along with other classics from the continent such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing and JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. I hope that one day a writer with as fine an eye, as clear a voice and as great compassion will write a book about South Africa’s recent past, bringing soul and humanity to my country’s history.

This is my first book of 2008. I have no doubt that at the end of this year, it will be one of my favourites.



I am an ostrich about war. In South Africa, there was a war against apartheid and even though I wasn’t actively liberating my country myself, I opposed the despicable regime. The toll it took emotionally to live inside something you loathe was so great that since our liberation, other wars have become almost meaningless to me. I deplore them, especially ones like the war in Iraq, which so patently comes out of greed, or the suicidal war that Robert Mugabe is waging on his own citizens out of his own insane lust for power and money, but often I ignore them. It’s just easier.

So it’s strange for me to come to you with a post about war. It was inspired by one of my blog-friends, the BikeProf, who has written so movingly about his position on Iraq and what it really means to support the troops. His own father is a veteran and is now in hospital with cancer that has probably grown out of his exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam war. BikeProf is vehemently against America’s current war, but is wholeheartedly in support of the troops. His particular concern – apart from unpacking the political rhetoric around the bumper stickers “Support our Troops” which he shows really means “Support Bush” – is how troops are treated on their return home from war, if they are lucky enough to do so. Do they get the support they really need as they try to make their way in society? And years later, how does society ensure that they get the medical treatment they require?

Here is what BikeProf has to say:

So, here is my plea. I want to start people talking more and more and more about supporting the troops. I want people to think more about how we treat the people who have made the sacrifices for our country. I want people to think about how cynically politicians exploit the troops for their own ends. I want people to think about how a drunken frat boy draft dodger can be seen as a hero and biggest supporter of our troops, and I want people to think about just what this absolute and complete collapse of meaning says about our country. Please, write something about this. Spread the word. Talk about how we need to support our troops in real, tangible, material ways–starting with bringing them home from this evil, stupid, stupid war. Reference me or not, link to me or not, but talk about it. Ask everyone who reads your blog to write about it–just one post–until everyone in the blogosphere is talking about it. Create a chain blog, an enormous pyramid of entries. It may mean nothing–probably will mean nothing–but things only start to happen when people talk and agitate.

Read both his posts. Spread the word. And while you’re doing it, read Courtney’s post about growing up with a war veteran in the house, and Emily’s post on language and how it is used to political effect.