The book I want to talk about today is a family history with a twist. Miranda Richmond Mouillot grew up in Asheville, America near to her grandmother, Anna. Her own parents were divorced and her non-birth father, her stepfather whom she calls Abah, it as much of a father to her as any body possibly could be. Her mother, Angèle, is often unwell, so her childhood is somewhat fraught and she does spend a lot of time with her grandmother, a Romanian Jewish immigrant. A Fifty Year Silence is a memoir, a family history, a family love story and a personal journey from fear and anxiety through to understanding and peace and ultimately – happiness.
Miranda grew up knowing that her grandmother’s background was one of flight and fright, but as she knew her, she saw a woman of great courage and strength, someone who had “sourrvived”. But her grandfather is absent, he lives in Geneva, alone. Miranda sees him very occasionally, until she is sent at her grandmother’s suggestion, to boarding school to be near him, she later realises.
Having grown up with endless snippets of her grandmother’s conversations and bits of information about her life, Miranda is rather startled to discover that her grandfather, Armand, has a radically different view. He frequently asks himself, and Miranda, why he ever married Anna, apart from her beautiful black hair, “like a raven’s wing”, the marriage was a disaster.
This family history is about a woman caught in the meshes of her background, seemingly trapped forever in searching for meanings, events and traumas that stare out of a Jewish family past, never to be forgotten. Anna and Armand married in Swizterland while escaping from the Nazis, in 1948 they bought a tumble down house in France, but five years later Anna and her two children packed up and left. They never spoke to each other again. But when Armand wants to sell the house, he finds that Anna’s name is on the deeds. Miranda has to act as a go-between, and eventually this difficult negotiation leads to her going to France and actually attempting to live in this house. It has no windows, all broken by the local vandals, the door doesn’t fit and there is no hot water.
While she is there, on a research grant from her college, ostensibly about living in rural France, she is actually researching her grandparent’s background, trying to see how the pieces fit together and why they don’t any longer.
It is very rare for a book to take you so deeply into itself. Into the lives of two utterly different people, who through a series of miracles, or lucky chances, survived against all the odds and, disastrously, ended up married. The Holocaust, the Lanzmann film Shoah, the whole burden of loss falls not only on the survivors, but on the next and the next generation. At one point, someone asks Miranda when she is going to live her life? It is a turning point.
During her research she discovers what exactly it meant to be, as Armand was, an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trials. She confronts the truth of what it meant to be among the first people to know fully what exactly the Final Solution meant, to see as a first witness, the films that were used to demonstrate the utter, unimaginable horror of the concentration camps and to know “those were my people”, as it must have been for her grandfather.
She sees suddenly how it must have been, with all that knowledge, to return to family life and the impossibility of ever putting down the burden of that knowledge, how it changed her grandfather and why, in the end, Anna had to leave.
Her determination and persistence brings to the page a complex personal story, imbued with a public history the like of which it is hard to imagine. Miranda Richmond Mouillet takes us on that journey, bringing a singular perspective on a family history across three generations, her love spills from the narrative in the form of luminous prose.
Having read A Fifty Year Silence, maybe you will be encouraged to read another book of miraculous survival which I recommended in November 2014 under the title Au Revoir les Enfants or if you took my advice then, maybe you will follow it up with this book.