Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Tuesday, August 28, 2018: Maximum Shelf: At the Wolf's Table

Flatiron Books: At the Wolf's Table by Rosella Postorino

Flatiron Books: At the Wolf's Table by Rosella Postorino

Flatiron Books: At the Wolf's Table by Rosella Postorino

At the Wolf's Table

by Rosella Postorino

Adolf Hitler famously feared death by poisoning. Increasingly paranoid that his enemies would find a way to sneak contaminated food into the Wolfsschanze, his heavily guarded headquarters in East Prussia, he conscripted a handful of young women to serve as food tasters. Ten women from the nearby village of Gross-Partsch were driven to the Wolfsschanze each day, made to eat the vegetarian meals prepared for Hitler, then wait an hour to ensure that the Führer's food was safe to consume. Inspired by the real-life account of one taster, who told her story many years later, Italian novelist Rosella Postorino imagines the tasters' experience in her compelling fourth novel, At the Wolf's Table.

Rosa Sauer, Postorino's narrator, doesn't quite fit in with the other tasters. Reflective and somewhat detached, she recounts her childhood in Berlin, her courtship and eventual marriage to her boss, Gregor (now fighting at the front among thousands of other German men), and her mother's death in a bombing raid. Exiled to her in-laws' house in Gross-Partsch, Rosa sees herself and her new life with the keen eye of an outsider. She grows attached to Gregor's parents, Joseph and Herta, and comes to enjoy the country quiet. But their relative peace is upended when two things happen in quick succession: Rosa is conscripted as a food taster, and Gregor is reported as missing in action.

Not entirely convinced her husband is alive, but unwilling to believe he might be dead, either, Rosa spends the rest of the book (and the war) in an existential and emotional limbo. She climbs onto the bus every morning to perform her duties at the Wolfsschanze, returning home to help Herta with the household chores, wondering with every load of laundry and every mouthful of food whether any of it matters. She gradually becomes acquainted with her fellow tasters, but their situation is more suited to uneasy alliances than real friendship. In an atmosphere of tension and distrust, they must work together while keeping their guard up. Rosa's compatriots include Leni, childlike and innocent; Beate and Heike, both young mothers and lifelong friends whose bond leaves little room for anyone else; a group of women Rosa comes to call the Fanatics, whose devotion to their Führer leads to a fierce pride in their jobs; and Elfriede, enigmatic and sharp-tongued, to whom Rosa finds herself drawn.

The days mostly pass in uneventful fashion, but once in a while something happens to play on the women's myriad fears. The progress of the war seems mostly distant: despite their nearness to headquarters, the women receive little information. Their immediate concern, besides being poisoned, is their treatment at the hands of the local SS officers, which ranges from indifference to cold-eyed cruelty. Rosa, meanwhile, is wrestling with complicated emotions about her exile to this isolated area of the Reich, her feelings about her missing husband and her longing for a child. Adding to the complexity of her position are her tentative friendship with the local baroness and her growing relationship with Albert Ziegler, one of the Nazi officers in charge of the women.

Postorino's narrative is unusual among World War II novels. Rather than a story of stubborn resistance or unquestioning devotion to the Nazi cause, Rosa and her colleagues live in the gray area between. Rosa knows, as do they all, that their actions are tantamount to collaboration, but they also realize the privilege afforded them by a steady paycheck and three filling meals a day. Rosa, in particular, seems to find herself swept along by circumstance, though she gradually realizes that she must reckon with the implications not only of her actions, but of her willingness to go along with a cruel and corrupt system. As the war and the situation at the Wolfsschanze both drag on, Rosa remains an unwilling participant in both--but neither state of affairs will last forever.

Postorino ratchets up the tension in each chapter, mostly through small, troubling incidents: heightened security, whispers of battles lost at the front. Several larger events send shock waves through Rosa's tenuous community, and she wonders how long any of them will manage to survive. Not quite sure whether to call herself a victim or a collaborator, Rosa spends the waning years of the war navigating the space where those roles overlap.

Postorino's novel explores difficult questions: When does survival become an act of guilt? Do we bear responsibility toward those we know, or only those we love? Is it ever acceptable to support an evil regime? And is having no choice--or few choices--a justification for any action? Looking back on her experiences, Rosa finds no simple answers. But Postorino's narrative does justice to the complex nature of wartime, complicity and the consequences of breaking bread with (and for) the enemy. --Katie Noah Gibson

Flatiron Books, $26.99, hardcover, 288p., 9781250179142, January 29, 2019

Flatiron Books: At the Wolf's Table by Rosella Postorino

Rosella Postorino: Exploring Human Ambivalence

photo: Marco Rapaccini/Officine Fotografiche

Rosella Postorino is an Italian journalist, novelist and editor. She lives and works in Rome. At the Wolf's Table, to be published by Flatiron on January 29, 2019, is her fourth novel, and the first one translated into English.

Tell us about the inspiration for At the Wolf's Table.

In September 2014, while reading an Italian newspaper, I found a brief article about Margot Wölk, Hitler's last living food taster. She was 96 years old and it was the first time she had confessed her experience; she had kept it a secret her whole life. In the interview, she said she had never been a Nazi, but had been forced by the SS to become a food taster because she had moved to her parents-in-law's house when a bomb destroyed her apartment in Berlin, where she was born. Her husband was fighting on the Russian front, and her in-laws lived in a country village very close to the Wolf's Lair, Hitler's headquarters hidden in the forest.

Wölk and other young women were recruited to taste Hitler's food and check whether it was poisoned. She described the tasters' meals as very distressing moments, as a real nightmare, but she also remembered how delicious and fresh the food was. I felt that this contradiction represented the contradiction of her role: she was a victim being forced to risk life and limb three times a day just by eating, but she was also guilty, because she was working for Hitler, an inhuman, evil person. That's why I was struck by her story and decided to meet her.

I searched for her address, but when I found it three months later and wrote her a letter to ask if we could meet, she had just died. However, her story had already become my obsession and I thought that the only way to understand why it obsessed me was to write a novel loosely based on Frau Wölk's experience. My question was: What would I have done if I had been in her shoes?

There are many novels about World War II and life under the Nazi regime, but this is a rather unusual story. Did you want to capture a different angle on the war and its effect on ordinary German citizens?

It was interesting to see war from the point of view of marginal people--especially women, who stayed at home but became soldiers in an unusual army and risked their lives for the Third Reich, just like their husbands, brothers and fiancés fighting on the front. However, above all I wanted to look into human ambivalence. In extreme conditions we can become guilty, we can collude with evil without choosing to, but in certain eras, not choosing is choosing. Through the narrative, I wanted to analyze totalitarian organizations' effects on people who aren't fanatics.

I always wonder what people are prepared to do to survive. The Third Reich is a group that makes these questions more important and evident. It's an era we'll continue to investigate for a long time because we'll probably never have definitive answers about it, but I believe these kinds of questions concern everyone in every era, including our present time.

The novel is set partly in Berlin, but mostly in the area of Prussia where Hitler had his retreat, the Wolfsschanze. Did you travel to the site during your research?

Yes. I visited Parcz, called Gross-Partsch during World War II, the village where Margot Wölk lived with her parents-in-law, and I visited the Wolf's Lair with a guide who escorted me through the ruins of Hitler's, Goebbels', Goering's and others' bunkers. There are only ruins because at the end of 1944, the Nazis blew them up before leaving while the Red Army was advancing.

Today there's a bed and breakfast in the Wolf's Lair, so I spent one night in a place where Hitler and his men had lived, and it was a very strange feeling. I also went to Berlin and visited the building where Margot Wölk had lived her whole life (except for the years in East Prussia), and I talked with her neighbors.

The women who work as Hitler's food tasters are thrown together by their situation, but are not exactly friends. Can you talk about the complex relationships, alliances and/or rivalries they form?

They're all young women. Their partners are fighting or have died at the front, they're hungry, and every day they all face death and survive together. This extreme experience creates a bond among them. But they also live in a totalitarian and paranoid situation, so they can't know whom to trust, or mistrust. They want to survive at any cost, even if it means betraying each other. Almost every taster keeps a secret she couldn't confess to the others, even to the ones she considers friends. Before the eyes of the SS, they turn the room where they eat into a microcosm where they reproduce the typical relationship dynamics of society. It's fascinating for me that even in tragedy, they continue being human: they argue, they laugh, they have desires, they want to be desired, they hope, they love.

What is the role of food in the novel?

Food becomes a metaphor. Everyone needs to eat to survive, even though the food can kill them. It means that everyone needs to taste the world in order to live, even though living is always a life-threatening risk.

Rosa, the main character, struggles with the implications of her work as a taster, supporting Hitler and his regime. Can you talk about exploring her choices?

Rosa's existential condition is interesting for me, because she becomes guilty the very moment she becomes a victim. If she hadn't been a victim, she would never have been a collaborator of the Nazi regime. She needs to eat; it's necessary to survive, and eating in itself isn't a guilty action. But she eats Hitler's food in order to defend his life, so by eating she becomes an apparatus of the inhuman system that is the Third Reich.

Rosa tells her story to the reader at a time when she knows what the Third Reich represented: she no longer has an alibi. That's why she can feel guilty. During the experience as a taster, she probably couldn't actually have known how cruel the regime was, even though she personally experienced that cruelty as a victim. In The Drowned and the Saved, Italian writer Primo Levi, who survived a concentration camp, wrote that "the saved"--that is, the people who survived--weren't necessarily the best people, but the ones who adapted better to that specific system. Rosa survived because she adapted to the system, but that system was inhuman, so she wonders about her own humanity. --Katie Noah Gibson

Powered by: Xtenit