Gilles Rozier
Anthea Bell

(Little, Brown)
You remember that college drinking song of yore,

    Oh you can't can't chop your momma up in Massachusetts
    Not even if you're tired of her cuisine;
    No, you can't chop your momma up in Massachusetts
    You know it's almost sure to cause a scene.

You'd assume that our German teacher, the central character in Mercy Room, would think twice before chopping up Volker Hammerschimmel. It is sure to cause a scene for he is a SS trooper, one who has been bedding her sister at home in Vichy France since the beginning of the Occupation.

And not only does our French bourgeoise drop the boom on Herr Hammerschimmel, putting a halt to his up-the-staircase rutting with Anna (which "jolts the crystal chandelier in the drawing room"), she eventually drags his corpse down into the basement cellar occupied by her love Herman.

Herman is a Polish Jew. She ran into him while doing translations at the Nazi headquarters in the Hôtel de Barres. They walk out the door together and she takes him home, hides him in the cellar, saves him from certain death.

At first she just brings him food, takes out his chamber-pot. Later, they become lovers, there on the earth floor. "I was like a chicken on the spit offered up to the flames, and I liked it. I wanted those violent orgasms."

During the day, when not doing translation, she teaches German at the local high school. Her passions, outside of Herman and lust on the dirt floor of the cellar, are German writers, any of the classicists, along with Büchner, Hoffman, Kafka, Remarque, Hesse, Heine:

    Er träumt von einer Palme
    Die, fern im Morgenland,
    Einsam und schweigend trauert
    Auf brennender Felsenwand.

    The fir dreams of a palm tree
    In distant eastern lands,
    Silent, alone, in mourning
    On burning rocks it stands.

Herman and our German teacher stay underground teaching each other. He teaches her Yiddish and passion; she teaches him survival and captivity. It lasts for exactly two years, three months, two weeks. Herman is willing to do anything for her --- she saved his life. But when she lugs in the body of her sister's German lover as a roommate, he cries uncle, says it will drive him mad. He assumes Volker's uniform and identity, and is gone.

§     §     §

This one is an odd duck, this Mercy Room. Occupation turns people strange, whether it is of a country, of a people, or all or a part of an individual. Our teacher says of her sister, "She screwed to take her mind off it. She loved being penetrated by the enemy, and proclaimed it out loud. She was like her country: free for the taking."

But it is a chilly study, of penetration and its obverse. This unnamed German teacher is passionless with husband Jude: He killed himself after seven years of unconsummated marriage. She is passionate over Herman but it turns on power as well as lust. She relates that "he was at my mercy." It is no wonder that her favorite German story is the inverted passion descried in Death in Venice, one that must die unconsummated.

After the parting of Herman, our German teacher lives out her life, lives into old age. She lingers by the river, making a ceremony, what he would have called a Shma-Yisroel, there by the river.

    Soon I won't be able to do it anymore. You are as old as your arteries. So then I shall think of him without leaving my room. The tall branches of the acacia will help me to conjure up his memory.

--- M. B. Roloff
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