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Betty Smartt Carter

Bonhoeffer: Factual Fictions

I confess, I often cast my own life in dramatic prose. Having read Swann's Way and To the Lighthouse, I know the trick of elevating an ordinary moment by sticking it into narrative:

"Long enough," I said, watching the last irises wilt against the garden wall outside my window. "I've put this review off long enough." The hum of my computer sounded like a long sigh as I tried to remember the name of that book by Virginia Woolf.

Fascinating stuff, I think, but would anyone else think so? Probably not. What writer would care to build a novel around any of us, translating our experience into prose and probing imaginatively into our hearts? Few characters in history have inspired novelists to take up their literary crosses. Most of those who have (Claudius Caesar, Saint Luke, Michelangelo) are so long gone that it's pointless to argue too much about the accuracy of their literary portraits. Their very obscurity makes them perfect fodder for fiction: characters famous enough to attract readers but so remote that nobody much cares what a writer makes up about them. You won't hear any shocked friends of Alexander the Great complaining to Mary Stewart, "I knew him well and I can say for certain that he was not a bisexual!"

Apart from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I'm hard-pressed to think of any great novel (great novel) with a real-life hero who's been dead fewer than a hundred years. Biographies abound, but biographies have rules of their own. We don't demand dramatic movement from them, nor artful prose, only readable information. Biographers are slaves to hard facts but free to be—well, frequently dull. When a biographer writes well, we are surprised and grateful. Novelists, on the other hand, must always sing for their supper; they must entertain as well as enlighten, and their task becomes all the more difficult if they have to limit themselves to historical facts.

That's why it is both moving and fascinating to see two recent novels based on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. On the one hand, no one ought to be surprised by the widespread interest in this German theologian and pastor. His participation in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler made him a hero of the German Resistance a la Otto Schindler; his death at the hands of the Gestapo demonstrated for all Christians what it can mean to live for Christ in evil times. Last July, a bust of Dietrich Bonhoeffer took its place along with those of nine other modern martyrs in Westminster Cathedral.

On the other hand, Bonhoeffer died just over 50 years ago. His closest friend and biographer, Eberhard Bethge, still lives in Germany with his wife, Renate, who happens to be Bonhoeffer's niece. Nor are they Bonhoeffer's only living relatives; in fact, with so many survivors and witnesses floating around, any novelist would feel some anxiety about how to dramatize Bonhoeffer's story without compromising either art or "truth." It's hard to imagine what could attract a good writer to such a daunting project.

Mary Glazener and Denise Giardina both discovered Bonhoeffer's writings years before they began to write about him. Glazener, daughter of a North Carolina preacher, questioned her faith from an early age. During World War II, while Bonhoeffer suffered through Allied bombings in a Berlin prison, Glazener had a husband fighting for the American navy in the Pacific and a child to care for alone at home. Things settled down after the war. Glazener remained a faithful Baptist, even writing and directing religious theater for her church, yet she never managed to shrug off her religious skepticism until she discovered Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison at the library. It was "a window opening," Glazener says. "This highly intelligent man was not afraid to ask questions."

Cup of Wrath
by Mary Glazener
Smyth & Helwys
464 pp.; $18.95, paper

Thus began years of reading, followed by intense research, German study, and survivor interviews, all of which culminated in Glazener's novel, Cup of Wrath. As she wrote, she checked her manuscript continually for accuracy with Eberhard and Renate Bethge.

The Bonhoeffer of Cup of Wrath "may not be the real Dietrich Bonhoeffer," she says in the preface, "but it is certainly the Dietrich Bonhoeffer who has become real to me."

Denise Giardina published three works of fiction before Saints and Villains appeared this year. In her two widely praised novels, Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth, Giardina drew on her own knowledge of coal-mining life in southern West Virginia. Her childhood in Appalachia also predisposed her to admire Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who believed that Christians must identify with the poor and outcast. (Early on, Bonhoeffer saw the similarity between the sufferings of blacks in America and Jews in Europe.) Once she began to write Saints and Villains, Giardina split her work between research and imagination, trying to capture the strong voice that comes through in Letters and Papers, but also following her own instincts as a storyteller. In the postscript to the novel, she explains her approach clearly:

In a work of fiction whose characters are based on people who actually lived, the reader will naturally wonder, "What really happened?" The novelist comes to the task of writing with the full understanding that a collection of facts does not make an engaging story, and that fact and truth are not necessarily synonymous. Furthermore, the question "What really happened?" is impossible to answer despite the claims to objectivity of some journalists and historians. This novel is a work of the imagination, first and foremost, and yet I hope it is also true. Some "facts" have been altered because of the demands of the story.

In conceiving a novel around the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, two good writers paused at the same fork in the road and then took separate directions. Glazener, a dramatist, hoped to bring Bonhoeffer to a wider audience of readers, yet couldn't justify messing around with the known facts. She chose the narrow path to the novel, at times skating perilously close to biography.

Giardina, on the other hand, wanted to follow the story where it would take her. She cut herself free from all but the basic structure of Bonhoeffer's life: his seminary study in America, his espionage work, prison time, and martyrdom. Since nobody, not even Bonhoeffer's closest friends, could have known his motivations for certain, Giardina felt free to choose the broader path of imagination and instinct. Near the end of the book, for example, she reveals some of Dietrich's thought through conversations with a fictitious Nazi, Alois Bauer, who snipes at him like Satan hassling Christ:

"So you see, Pastor Bonhoeffer, I've saved more Jews than you have. Tell me, whom does God love more? You or me?" He waited with arms folded.

Dietrich shut his eyes. "No doubt," he said at last, "God pities us both."

"That is no answer."

"No." …

Bauer threw up his hands. "You're an odd sort of pastor. How could you comfort anyone? With you, there is nothing final, nothing certain." He snapped his briefcase shut and turned to go.

"Wait," Dietrich said. "I have somewhat of an answer for you. I do not know which of us God loves best. But I hope it is you. However, I warn you, the love of God burns like fire. You will not be able to stand in the face of it."

Giardina's Bonhoeffer comes with other fictitious acquaintances, including a part-Jewish lover and some hard-living, antiestablishment friends at Union Seminary in New York. A trip to West Virginia early in the book is mostly wishful thinking, though Bonhoeffer did travel through the American South and down to Mexico.

Giardina is honest about all this and gives fair warning in her postcript, allowing that several key characters are either fictions or composites. She refers the reader to Eberhard Bethge's biography, among others, for a detailed chronicle of the facts. As far as her own obligation to "tell the truth," Giardina believes that telling the truth lies in presenting a sympathetic portrait of her characters, getting at their inner motivations, and picturing what a wrenching life they had to lead. It does not mean presenting an account of Bonhoeffer's life that could stand up in court.

This approach will frustrate some people and outrage others: from Bonhoeffer experts to biography buffs to evangelicals who might bristle at the idea of a Christian hero carrying on an illicit affair (Bonhoeffer's theology has long been controversial, but then theology has never equaled sex for shock value).

Anyone wanting to meet the Bonhoeffer known so well to Bethge and other good friends would do well to read Cup of Wrath, which takes a careful approach to the facts and moves along better than any biography. Mary Glazener's novel, born out of years of meticulous research, deserves plenty of respect and commendation. It is an accurate and yet dramatic account of a real life, a good companion piece to Bonhoeffer's own works.

Saints and Villains, though, while throwing caution to the wind, succeeds in a very different way. While the first part of the book skimps on the voice of Bonhoeffer and falls a little short, the second half offers a striking portrait of a good man in a miserable conundrum. To help mankind, Bonhoeffer must offend his own conscience. He must dwell in shadows—in the resister's world of secrets and lies, treason and assassination. At the same time, though scared to death of prison camp and torture, he must side again and again with suffering people—identifying with Jews, with prisoners, even offering God's love to the despicable Nazis. In short, he must take up his cross and follow Christ all the way to an ignominious death.

The simplest rule of fiction is fool the reader. For most of us Bonhoeffer-neophytes, Giardina has done that well. The Dietrich of Saints and Villains lives on the page, in all his rash humanity. He is a Christian hero in the tradition of Saint Peter or Martin Luther, full of flesh and zeal, often prone to missteps, but perseverant in love and self-sacrifice.

True, you might want to roll your paperback copy up and knock Denise Giardina over the head for creating such a likably flawed person who perhaps never was. We the audience are well trained to tolerate huge distortions of fact in plays and movies: we all accept Shakespeare's portrait of Henry V as broadly imaginative, and most of us are pretty sure that William Wallace didn't really father a future king of France (as in Mel Gibson's Braveheart). From books, though, we expect everything or nothing, either the whole truth (biography) or a lie that wholly fools us (fiction).

Consider Giardina's approach, then, as mostly cinematic; she pans deftly in and out of her scenes, switching from Bonhoeffer's brooding introspection to broad visual sweeps of a nation at war. To underscore the immediacy of the action, she often writes in the present tense. In one very matter-of-fact episode from the bombing of Berlin, Giardina thoroughly captures the nightmare at the soul of Germany. The passage reads like something from The War of the Worlds:

In the Tiergarten, a bomb has landed in the zoo aquarium, killing all the amphibians and fish. Many of the animals are dead, others wounded or dying. The cages are damaged and soldiers are dispatched to kill the survivors, lest they escape into what is left of the city.
Saints and Villains
by Denise Giardina
487 pp.; $25

Thuringian farm boys armed with machine guns mow down polar bears and lions and the last zebra amid smoldering piles of concrete. The crocodiles have managed to escape the reptile house and slither their way to the Spree, but they are caught at the riverbank and shot, thrown up white bellies first in the cold brown water.

It is difficult to imagine what the real Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say about the hero of Denise Giardina's novel. On the other hand, it is impossible to imagine the shock he would have if he woke up right now and found himself the subject of two novels, several biographies, untold essays and articles, not to mention videotapes, cassettes, and (I'm willing to bet, but don't disappoint me if I'm wrong) at least one CD-ROM. In Cup of Wrath, Glazener's Bonhoeffer struggles with pride, loathing both the worship of others and the part of himself that exacts it:

One day [at the Confessing Church seminary in Pomerania] in the midst of an intense discussion on ways to withstand the committees he saw in their faces an idolizing look. Only a few seemed to retain their independence of mind. It seemed to Dietrich a pitiable show of weakness that they would so belittle themselves because of his power to dominate their thinking.

For the first time since Dietrich had taken the seminary appointment, the black demons descended upon him. In despair he went about his tasks automatically. … [H]e gave the malaise a name: accidie tristitia—the first for his weariness of spirit when he failed to be the Christian he had set himself to be, and the second for the melancholy that followed.

It is a strange paradox that we must look so intently at one man's life in order to understand history, and yet by looking too long at him we often lose sight of the whole. None of us will ever completely comprehend the real Dietrich Bonhoeffer, even with all the facts about him at hand. We can, though, borrow some of his experience as a telescope into a terrible tragedy and say, along with him, When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.

Betty Smartt Carter is at work on her on third novel.

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