The five nominees for the literature Campiello Prize 2018 were announced on May 25th, and Rosella Postorino‘s At the Wolf’s Table: A Novel (Le assaggiatrici) is among them. No surprise and lots of happiness for us. What surprised us instead was the book itself, discovered thanks to a meeting held in Madrid at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura where the author and the editor Laura Cerutti–in charge of Italian fiction for Feltrinelli–presented the book. It is easy to say why surprised us: the plot begins with the real story, confessed for the first time at 96 years old, by Margot Wölk, one of the girls who ate Hitler’s meals before he does.
The recent nomination for the Campiello Prize is not the only goal achieved by this amazing novel in less than six months since its debut on Italian shelves: even before the release, the rights had in fact already been purchased by the Netherlands, France and the United States, as well as Spain where it will be released in October 2018.
How did this book come to be?
In September 2014 I found this article by chance entitled “One of Hitler’s tasters still alive tells her story”. I read it and it was just a shock. It was a shock reading about this extremely dramatic situation, a nightmare: these women all locked together in a room that eats things that could kill them. This coexistence in a dimension of despair, sacrifice, and pleasure together, is surely the thing that struck me immediately.
After reading the article, I just thought it was the plot of a novel, even before to be written: you survive because you can eat, when others can not, and you’re even paid to do it; the condition of victim and culprit, of test subject and privileged person together, this privilege which means to be guilty because you are working for the Führer; and then the paradox that eating is what keeps you alive, but at the same time it’s what can kill you.
A very thin thread divides the life and the risk to die.
Exactly, it’s the perfect metaphor of the human condition: on the day we are born, we are already beginning to die a little. Our destiny is this, but it is as if we forgot about it, while there, at Hitler’s table, every day, three times a day, you remember that.
And then the book deals with the survival instinct: you eat for the Führer, even if it’s not for a political ideology or for fanaticism, you eat because you have to survive somehow. The survival instinct is a bit like a punishment, it leads you to do things you wouldn’t tolerate if you weren’t in such an extreme condition. Surviving at all costs makes you paradoxically less human, like the protagonist of my book, Rosa Sauer, that comes to say this sentence:
“la capacità di adattamento è la maggior risorsa degli esseri umani, ma più mi adattavo e meno mi sentivo umana.”
[the ability to adapt is the greatest resource of human beings, but the more I adapted and the less I felt human.]
How did you reconstruct the historical details?
As far as the food, there is an entire book on Hitler’s meals: first of all on the subject you have to make a decision on your own, because some people say he was vegetarian–Margot Wölk among them–some say that one of his favorite dishes was the pigeon. Perhaps it’s difficult to understand what people mean by “vegetarian”, what he didn’t eat actually. In this book there are even some recipes and I must admit that there are no meat recipes, but some fish ones.
Hitler had a whole series of obsessions, he was convinced that eating meat makes you weak, less performing, and makes you sweat. Surely this interruption from eating meat came after a visit to a slaughterhouse where he had witnessed a real slaughter. It is said that walking through the fresh blood with the boots had impressed him too much. Impressed. Hitler! So he decided to stop eating meat because the slaughterhouses were too cruel.
You pay particular attention also to the clothes of the time.
There is a very good manual of fashion history published by Einaudi, with sketches and drawings, which helped me a lot, and a fashion designer helped me with the precise terms. I used the clothes to underline how Rosa was different from the other girls: she had to be the different one, the foreigner, trying to integrate into the group, fight for her initiation.
Do you know the reasons why Margot Wölk waited up to 96 years to tell her story?
She doesn’t say anything about it but I suppose it was because of shame, and also fear. As soon as the war was over, it wasn’t very convenient to admit to had worked for Hitler, and later on, I think she preferred to keep it quiet. As you know, I couldn’t talk to her before she died, but I went to see where she had lived, I’ve been to both the Wolfsschanze and Berlin, and there I met her neighbor. This woman was the closest person, she helped her, she did the shopping for her, for the last eight years of her life Margot Wölk never left home because she suffered from vertigo, and this neighbor made her company. But she never talked neither to her about the experience as a Hitler’s taster. I think that for her it was a kind of guilt, a stain that could not be washed, and also the sign of a great trauma.
What did you find out about the real story of Margot Wölk to use in the book?
All I had was a half hour video of an interview done at home: she was an old woman, she didn’t tell much of her work as a taster, but showed photos of her as a young woman. The real story gives the way to the plot of the book: a woman who lives in Berlin, the bombings and the need to leave the city. It is true that while she was at the Wolfsschanze, there was an assassination attempt on the Führer, and even the end of the book follows her real story.
The rest has been invented, reading a lot of pure history books: during the three years of writing I consulted the History of the Third Reich by Shirer, and then I read a book on the psychological profile of Hitler called The Mind of Adolf Hitler. The secret wartime relationship, written by Langer, an Austrian exile who made an evaluation for the US intelligence. The written memoir of Hitler’s secretaries were very useful, in addition to novels set during the Second World War, by contemporary authors. Reading novels connected to that time helped me to create the lie: in the novels people do things, and they do it inside houses, in the streets, they are useful to give an idea of everyday life. Two books have especially helped me, A woman in Berlin by an anonymous author, and Underground in Berlin by Marie Jalowicz Simon, published right when I was writing my book. They are interesting because they told about people deciding to settle for a compromise to survive.
Was it difficult to transmit the anguish of such a dark period?
Many books were fundamental, for me, for example History. A novel by Elsa Morante, which is not set in Germany, but shows how history has the ability to oppress normal people. It is a very strong feeling for me.
Basically, I’m interested in talking about people in a condition of constraint, in an extreme situation, in which the human being seeks and reconstruct habits. A marvelous phrase of a poem by Borges defines it clearly, he says
“l’abitudine che ci aiuta a sentirci immortali.”
[The habit that helps us feeling immortal.]
How did you create Rosa Sauer?
For the first time I had as a starting point a character that really existed, it made me feel calm. But then I had to get close to a girl who was 26 years old in 1943, already married at that age, whose husband had gone to war, living with her in-laws in the country, and working for Hitler – it was the furthest thing from me ever, it’s another world.
The only way I had to get close to her was to give her features that belonged to me: the obsessions, the tastes, the quirks. Rosa likes singing, she’s vain, she loves the clothes, she’s a chatty… These things are mine, and I transferred them to her so I could distinguish her. She has thus become a normal person, with her own characteristics.
It seems that you fought for the character of Margot –or Rose.
I wondered why I obsessed so much over the story of Margot Wölk. Probably I imagined myself to be Margot Wölk, I put myself in her place and I called her Rosa because it’s my name. I gave her my name because it could happen to me, to you, to anyone, and we’re not all heroes.
Rosa’s surname, Sauer, means sour in German, it’s not a coincidence.
No, of course, I chose it. All the surnames are quiet literary, I’d have to change them probably if the book will come out in Germany.
Even the previous book Il corpo docile was inspired by a newspaper article, a true story.
Yes, you’re right, I wasn’t looking for that but it happened: regarding Il corpo docile I found an article about the children living in the Rebibbia prison. And I had the same reaction I had for Hitler’s tasters, a surprise, I had no idea of this situation.
Children are innocent, and living in prison means suffering the hardest punishment. When they are 3, they are set free and separated from their mothers, leaving an extreme sense of abandonment.
Who is Rosella Postorino?
“Every day Rosella Postorino goes to the office, she works at the Einaudi publishing house. She’s an editor.”
You wrote your first book in 2007 and At the Wolf’s Table: A Novel came out in January [in Italy]: what happens between one book and another?
Nothing! The lives of others are always full of events, children, marriages, houses, changes: they change cities, boyfriends, and me, nothing … The boyfriend is always the same, the house is the same, the job is the same. My books are what changes in my life, and they mark my memories.
THE LAUNDRY ROOM
The book on the bedside table.
Una donna può tutto. 1941: volano le streghe nella notte by Ritanna Armeni. And I just finished Contro il sacrificio by Massimo Recalcati.
When you were a child you wanted to be…
At 12 a writer, before than a painter.
Are you good at cooking?
I am a disaster, as an Italian, I am ashamed.
Speaking of subjects, the freedom, delimited or renegotiated, which evidently in my case leads to claustrophobia. Speaking of people, I’d say Marguerite Duras. She came from a modest family, too, when I was 15 I used to read her books and be inspired by her. And then I would say Elsa Morante.
You’d love to have a dinner with…
Marguerite Duras and Elsa Morante, together!
Do you travel a lot?
Well, I travel for work, but sometimes–if I can have some spare time–I go even a little further.
Write or read?
You can not do one without the other, they are extremely connected.
From 0 to 10 how much do you like talking about yourself?
0.5 I think! About my work 10 … to answer you, let’s say 2 or 3.
A movie to laugh.
I’m Starting from Three, by Massimo Troisi.
A movie to cry.
The bridges of Madison County, by Clint Eastwood, is the first that comes to mind but I cry a lot with every movie.
If yiu’d have to choose where to live, would Rome be?
No, I would say Paris.