The lonely bones of mermaids

A German view of Beautiful Pictures Of The Lost Homeland – a polyphonic masterpiece on grief, otherness and defining what ‘home’ is

Mia Gallagher: knows how to depict this magical thinking of childhood. Photograph: Robbie Fry

Mia Gallagher: knows how to depict this magical thinking of childhood. Photograph: Robbie Fry


In Bavarian folklore exists a mythological creature called the Wolpertinger. Its origin is unclear. It is extremely shy and lives in the woods. Its body is composed from different animal parts: wings, fangs, antlers. Not many people have seen it. Some even say it can only be spotted by beautiful young women. Like the mermaid it is a creature of the in-between, a hybrid, neither mammal nor bird, but something different entirely.

Its otherness unsettles, but also captivates. It reminds us that things might not be as clear as we assume them to be. Or even – as we need them to be.

The characters in Mia Gallagher’s masterful novel are stuck in this space of the in-between – they find themselves in-between genders, in-between the past and present, in-between different ways of living.

There is Georgie, a girl in a boy’s body, obsessed with mermaids and heartbroken by the death of her mother; a death that leaves her in the care of her father and Lotte, a young woman from England who cleans the family’s house. Lotte is one of the few people who can see the real Georgie. She has moved to Dublin to escape her own past, but keeps being haunted by the shadow of her twin brother Andrew.

And there is David, Georgie’s father, who is unable to understand his child, because he is too busy defending his place in the world and playing by the rules.

The director David Lynch said once in an interview: “Most people live their life in fear and confusion.” This is certainly true for the characters in Gallagher’s book. And – like Lynch’s creation, the late Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks – they also have secrets.

Georgie is trying to hide her girlishness. Her “safe place” is a dark lane behind the house she lives in, a dangerous place where she is not supposed to play by herself. But this is the place where magic happens. In this lane Georgie becomes invisible and she meets Elaine, a mysterious girl that is hiding in the empty house on the other side of the lane. But what is Elaine’s secret?

Gallagher knows how to depict this magical thinking of childhood, a thinking that is tied to certain objects, places and smells. Like when Georgie is going back to her grandparent’s house by the coast to throw a doll’s head into the sea that she stole once from a friend and the air smells of “seaweed and the lonely bones of mermaids”.

Yet in adult life, what we believed as children to be true turns out to be fauler Zauber as we say in German, nothing but foul magic. As the grown-up Georgie realises more than 20 years later: “Things are only things (…) They’re not repositories for souls, or ghosts, or people. And no thing, no matter how loved and despised, will bring back a person who’s gone.”

Parallel to the Dublin narratives, Anna Bauer (Julia), an old German woman, is being interviewed by a film crew for a TV production on the second World War. She remembers her Flucht (flight) from the Sudetenland and her first years in England. Asked whether England has become some sort of new home for her, she isn’t sure. Yes, it is home, somehow, but the real homeland is forever lost. “How is that,” she asks, “that a place is home but not too?”

The fate of the so-called Sudetendeutsche has been a difficult and, for the most part, a forgotten one. They were refugees. Foreign in their own country. Not having been welcomed by their fellow Germans, forever the Nazi anywhere else they went. I could only find one book about the Flucht in the history section of the library of the Goethe-Institut.

Memory culture or Erinnerungskultur, as it is called in German, is a touchy topic. Remember, remember… never forget. It is the victims that tell their story, not the perpetrators, and Germany has accepted the responsibility of being a Tätervolk, a nation of perpetrators. This became very obvious in the different way the terrorist attacks were treated by politicians in France and Germany. There was no national mourning, no big articles about the victims of the Berlin attack in leading German newspapers. Maybe we have forgotten how to mourn publicly, because it is somehow written in our political DNA now: a nation of perpetrators has no right to mourn.

Having written this paragraph I can feel myself getting worried. Is it really OK for me to write that only the victims were allowed to tell their story? And that a nation of perpetrators are not allowed to mourn? I am worried that it could sound like I am trying to relativise what happened. Which I really don’t want to do.

It is so very difficult to write about this topic, especially when you are German.

My own family came from Silesia and the Sudetenland to Sachsen-Anhalt in East Germany. What they left behind, how they left, whether they mourned for the loss of their homeland – it was never talked about. And I never thought about asking. The Polish-Czech connection in our family has only endured in a certain preference for a dish of sweet dumplings called Quarkbällchen, eaten with melted butter and sugar and cinnamon, as well as a salad with beetroot that we call Russian salad.

My own lost homeland would not be the Sudetenland, however, but the country I grew up in, a country that, like Bohemia, does not even exist anymore – the GDR.

Heimat is a very German concept. It is much more than just the country you come from. It is not just a geographical, but also an emotional space. Maybe because Germany has changed its borders and its identity so many times. People having to leave the homeland behind, because they were forced to. Mostly it is connected to landscape: the coast of the Baltic Sea, the deep forests, the mountains. What comes to my mind is a painting by Casper David Friedrich, a 19th-century German Romantic landscape painter. It is called Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (Wanderer above the Sea of Fog). A lone male figure on top of a mountain, his back to the viewer.

It is a beautiful painting, but it is also a bit gloomy and unsettling. A bit uncanny, which is unheimlich in German. An adjective that carries heim / home in it. According to Freud the uncanny is something that is strangely familiar, yet incongruous – maybe like the Wolpertinger, who challenges the order of things.

We also say:

Heim - weh (Homesickness)

heim - lich (secret, hidden)

Heim - such - ung (affliction, visitation) (Just like Lotte, who believes she is seeing her brother’s face reflected in a mirror, only to realise that it is her own reflection she is startled by)

The most intriguing structure in the novel, the one also, on the surface, most explicitly concerned with Heimat, is the Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities. Here, with laconic humor, the history of Bohemia is told with the help of things that shape a people’s identities: maps, landscapes, objects, food. But these were people that did not “fit in”, that were “neither Czechs not Germans, but Bohemians”. In extensive footnotes this history is compared to Irish history and identity. Later the reader comes to understand that this cabinet of curiosities – which will more and more turn into a cabinet of atrocities – is part of an art project constructed by Lotte’s twin brother Andrew that will cost him his life.

The Wunderkammer is a recurring motif throughout the novel: for example, when Georgie wonders about the quality of the human brain which lets it remember every single thing that the eyes register – “like those baroque princes who used to collect oddments for their cabinets of curiosities”. This provokes a question: what should be remembered and what is better to be forgotten? Unfortunately we are not the curators of our own memory, like Georgie learns the hard way on a pilgrimage to Glendalough. Old pain, fresh wounds. We cannot escape our past. Things fall apart. Which is not only true for a period in Irish history or the disappearance of Anna Bauer’s homeland, but also for Georgie and David’s family.

In this fascinating book Gallagher manages to show how many ways we can lose our “homeland”. Whether it is Georgie’s struggle with her own body, David’s uncertainty around his place in the world or Lotte being lost between her past and present – what all these characters have in common is that they are misfits. They are lonely, unable to connect to the people around them and yet trying to do the best they can to survive, even at the expense of others. Like the Wolpertinger, they hide and don’t want to be seen as who they think they really are. Rather, they want to blend in, conceal their grief, just like Georgie tells her boyfriend Martin: “Grief? (..) For God’s sake, don’t be dramatic.”

The questions this book is asking are deeply human: how difficult is it to be brave and be yourself? How do we bring order to the chaos inside us? Can we even live a life that is self-determined or is our destiny just a product of genetics? And, to quote Rilke, as Gallagher does in the book – maybe the Wolpertinger, the little mermaid and all other in-betweeners are actually princesses who are waiting to be transformed by love.

Beautiful Pictures Of The Lost Homeland is a polyphonic masterpiece on grief, otherness and defining what “home” is. Beautiful and disturbing.
Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland by Mia Gallagher, published by New Island Books, is February’s Irish Times Book Club choice. Mia will discuss her work with Laura Slattery of The Irish Times at the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin 1 on Thursday, February 23rd at 7.30pm

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