Author: Alex Miller
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2020
Castlemaine-based Alex Miller is the winner of multiple national and international awards and a recipient of the Manning Clark Medal for outstanding contribution to Australian cultural life. His latest work, Max, his first non-fiction book, is a tribute to a man he loved and who loved him, a man who was his mentor and inspiration.
Imagine you are a writer. A friend shares with you mysterious fragments of his past. This friend shuns the limelight yet you have always suspected that “beneath his modesty, lurked a secret wish to have the story told”. Then your friend dies.
Max is a Jewish/German socialist intellectual who opposes the rise of the Third Reich. He is deported to Poland in 1933 and emigrates to Australia in 1945. His torture at the hands of the Gestapo, the demise of the German Labour Movement and the destruction of ideals to which he has devoted his life, have broken Max and brought him to the end of hope.
When Max dies, Miller feels he has betrayed his friend by not writing his story. He goes to Berlin in search of Max’s mysterious past as a resistance fighter. Miller believes that the torture Max suffered is the reason his memories are so fragmented. His quest leads him to a darker suspicion. He begins to fear that his friend was not a hero, after all. He gets to know Max better by meeting people who suffered similar experiences. The fragile Jewish community of Breslau, for instance where latent anti-Semitism still hovers.
Miller compares the rise of the Third Reich with the extreme right in the Western world today. A constant theme is that many Jews couldn’t believe what was happening until it was too late – they didn’t believe it was possible, they just didn’t see it coming. Miller suggests history seems fated to repeat itself and offers the chilling warning: “By the time we are aware of it, it will be too late to bring it down.”
After the war, Max was denied compensation because he was unable to provide documentary evidence. Miller points to this inhumane situation repeating worldwide today: failure to produce paperwork is often an excuse for governments to avoid helping refugees.
Honouring Max’s telling, the writing is divided not into chapters, but “fragments”. It is rich with sensitively portrayed images of place and human interaction …Miller’s reluctant visit to Auschwitz … his walk through the Thuringia forest … the post-war decay still evident in parts of Europe and the loving restoration of buildings that were burned to the ground because they were Jewish.
For me this book was a gift, emphasising as it does the importance of listening to traumatised people, and the value of every life. The story of futile resistance against an evil power will resonate with today’s refugee advocates.
Reviewed by: Maureen Riches, October 2020
Ballarat Writers Inc. Book review group