Kindergarten: A Novel by Rushforth, PeterKindergarten: A Novel by Rushforth, Peter

Kindergarten: A Novel

byRushforth, Peter

Paperback | December 11, 2007

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From the acclaimed author of Pinkerton’s Sister, a moving retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story.

A woman is murdered during a terrorist attack, leaving her three sons in the care of their grandmother, Lilli. As the four prepare to celebrate Christmas without her, Lilli is drawn into a lonely world of memories, forced to confront the horrors of the Nazi persecution she managed to survive. After losing her entire family in the Holocaust, Lilli finds that it is this final death–that of her daughter–that allows her to reach out to the next generation and, with them, forge a unique path toward peace and reconciliation.
Peter Rushforth’s brilliant first novel, Kindergarten, was published in 1979 and won the Hawthornden Prize, awarded to the best work of imaginative literature. After an absence of twenty-five years he returned to the literary scene in 2004 with the epic novel Pinkerton’s Sister, which charmed critics at the Washington Post, New Yorker,...
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Title:Kindergarten: A NovelFormat:PaperbackDimensions:224 pages, 8 × 5.1 × 0.64 inPublished:December 11, 2007Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385665415

ISBN - 13:9780385665414

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The faces in newspaper photographs and on television news reports had changed. The faces of terrified children, and of women holding up imploring hands, were no longer South-East Asian faces, but the faces of Europeans. The gun-fire, the burning buildings, the bomb ex­plosions were in the streets of European cities once again. The unknown possibilities of death were all around.It was Christmas Eve, 1978.The terrorists in the West Berlin school were making the captive children sing carols.Children’s voices came across the waste of snow in front of the school, the distant mass of the buildings show­ing no light from its windows. At first, Corrie thought they were singing “The Red Flag”–the tune was the same–but then he made out the words.“O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, wie treu sind deine Blätter!Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit,Nein, auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, wie treu sind deine Blätter!O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, du kannst mir sehr gefallen!Wie oft hat nicht zur WeihnachtszeitEin Baum von dir mich hocherfreut!O Tannenbaum . . .”The group of terrorists at the school were from the same terrorist organisation, Red Phoenix, as the people who had carried out the shootings at Leonardo da Vinci air­port, the people who had killed his mother. He felt his stomach beginning to tighten. He had switched on the television to watch a cartoon version of “Hansel and Gretel,” and the afternoon news report immediately pre­ceded the children’s programme.Lilli, his grandmother, who had come through into their kitchen from her house next door, walked into the living-­room behind him, drawn in by the German words. He turned to face her.“What is that song?”“‘Der Tannenbaum.’ The fir-tree,” she answered quietly. The words had awoken memories for her.He thought of the special television news programme for the deaf on Sunday evenings, a digest of the week’s events, when subtitles appeared at the bottom of the screen as the newscaster spoke.Lilli sat beside him, looking at the television.“The song tells us the fir-tree is a symbol of faith. It is always green, in summer, and in winter also, when it is snowing. We learn from it hope and steadfastness.” She pulled a face as she spoke the last word, and looked inter­rogatively at him.He nodded. The word was right.“The fir-tree is noble and alone. It comforts and strengthens us.”She spoke each word very carefully, her mouth sometimes working awkwardly, as though the words were small solid objects she balanced between her lips. Her whole mouth puckered, as if she were about to pronounce the letter “o,” like a child’s when it has sucked something sour. It was only in her speech that the stroke she had suffered eighteen months ago occasionally left its sign, though strangers would not have noticed this, believing that her hesitancies were those of someone to whom Eng­lish was a foreign language.Her fingers were pulling the front of her smock.“It was one of the few Christmas songs allowed in the time of Hitler. It makes no mention of Christ.”He looked at her face. Physical pain always faded as ­time passed. The memory of humiliation and mockery never died. Each time the memory was revived, the feel­ings returned as intense as they had been at the time they were first experienced.She held her hand in front of him, opening out her fingers, and smiled.“‘Der Tannenbaum.”’He picked up the slender green fir needles from her open palm, smelling their freshness­–snow in dark forests–noticing, for the first time, other needles clinging to the front of her smock and down her skirt.“O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,” he said, and began to pick other needles from Lilli’s clothes, dropping them into his cupped left hand.He had once been a little afraid of Lilli. She was tall, still considerably taller than he, who was small for his age. She looked rather fierce, and now–in her seventies–was dressed in a loose billowing smock with a tiny dark floral pattern, and a rust-coloured floor-length velvet skirt. Her hair, still dark, hung loosely about her face, not like an old woman’s at all. She looked like a folk-singer with a rich clear voice who would sing sad songs about the deaths of maidens, the cruelty of love–all the songs collected by his grandfather before his death. It was only in the last year that he had really talked to her, as he had helped to give her lessons after her stroke. His hands moved gently against the velvet material. Stroke. That was what a stroke was. A gentle touch of affection. A gentle touch on the brain that could cripple.It was nine months since the killings in Rome. That had been during the Easter holidays. Mum would have been carrying Easter presents for them all. She had promised to get them all something.The face on the television screen was a face at a win­dow, the face of a frightened child. Below the child’s face, the now familiar image behind the newscaster on each day’s news, were the words “School Siege: Day Seven.” They were marking the end of the first week of the siege by an extended news programme, the most coverage the event had had since the day it had started. As the number of days of the siege rose, news about the school had come later and later in the reports, moved to the inside pages of newspapers, shorter and smaller as the days went by, compressed by the greater demands of more recent events: a bomb explosion in Tel Aviv, a shooting at a Middle Eastern embassy in Rome, a plane hijacked from Belgium. The same pictures appeared over and over again: the air liner on a lonely desert strip, viewed from a distance across bare sand; the hooded figure at the window with the sub-machine-gun. The subtitles appeared and disappeared at the bottom of the screen, as if the words spoken were in a foreign language talking of incomprehensible occurrences.Now the television screen showed the face of a weeping woman being restrained by a policeman wearing a peaked cap. She tried to pull herself forward, and away from him, towards the encircled school, her eyes gazing upwards.The newscaster began to talk about the political situa­tion in West Germany. Behind him as he continued speak­ing, filling the whole background, one brightly coloured picture remained as an image of modern West Germany. A group of well-dressed people were sitting in a glass-­enclosed street restaurant in a pedestrian precinct. Stain­less steel held the glass in place. It was very new, very sharp and shiny, like everything in the picture, the expen­sive clean impersonality of the transit lounge of an inter­national airport, where all the people there were only passing through. Behind the glass, wiped free of all finger­prints, the men and women ate elaborate ice-cream confections from narrow cone-shaped glasses, the laden spoons held before their open mouths. Their eyes had the shut, closed-in look of people who knew they were being photographed but were trying to look natural. They all had rings on their fingers, men and women, and they were all middle-aged. Dim figures, many of them, could be seen through the dark glass which closed off the inner rooms of the newly painted building, but the door which led through from the outside, on which all the seated figures had their backs turned, was closed.Inside his copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, lying on the floor beside him on top of the notebook with the ruled staves – spidery with pencilled notes, crotchets and quavers, much corrected – was the hidden postcard he had found in the school music rooms. He had opened the door set into the wall, and gone into the room beyond.The postcard had been posted in Berlin in June, 1939, to the man who had then been the headmaster of South­wold School, a predecessor of his father.Dear Mr. High,Thank you very much for your kind letter. I am so gratefull that you will receive me and my big brother in your school. We wait now for permits. I send you our good wishes. Dear Sir, also our parents thank you very much. Excuse, dear Mr. High, all this troubles. Please pardon me about my stammerings, but my will is stronger than the words I know. We will be diligent in our study and becomingness, and prove ourselves worthy. We will be good boys. I am happy about my violoncello. Highly esteemed sir, I remain, Yours respectfully, Nickolaus MittlerOther pictures were shown on the television, some in col­our, some in black and white: police photographs of young men and women, unsmiling, staring straight ahead; photographs of bomb damage; coffins being interred; bod­ies lying in streets, their feet protruding beyond the edges of the blankets; people showing identity papers to police­men; film of riot police with batons; crowds running from tear-gas; burning buildings. Film of that day’s events at the West Berlin school was repeated, and the children’s high voices came from out of the darkness and the unlit building.Lilli held out her hand to take the fir needles from him, and then stood up.“How is the German Christmas?” he asked her.She had spent the past week preparing what she said was going to be a “traditional German Christmas” for them in her house, insisting on doing everything herself, keeping it all secret. Christmas Eve, she had told them, was the special, solemn time, when everything important happened. Christmas Day was not a special day. The fir needles were a part of her plans. He had seen the fir-tree being delivered two days earlier. Der Tannenbaum.“Six o’clock. The German Christmas will be ready at six o’clock.”On the other side of the postcard was a sepia photo­graph. Die Freilichtbuhne, Berlin. (Open-air Theatre, Berlin.)The scene was an enormous open-air theatre built to the same design as the theatres of ancient Greece. Tier upon tier of curved seating rose in an immense semicircle away and upwards from the circle of the orchestra, the dancing place for the Chorus. In the centre of that circle would be the altar. From the back centre point where the photo­graph was taken, the rows of seating arched away to right and left, the farther rows smaller and closer together. In the distance, behind the central grassed circle, was the acting area, a raised stone platform running the whole width from side to side, with a wide central flight of steps. Behind this was a high stone wall with an entrance facing the centre of the steps. Above and beyond the blank stone was a dark fir wood, its closely packed trees tall and im­penetrable, the inner darkness beginning only a few feet from the edge.There was no human figure in the whole scene.The thousands upon thousands of seats were empty, and the stage was deserted. It appeared as ruinous and abandoned as the ancient Greek theatres on which it was modelled, waiting for some call, some sacrifice, to fill all those seats with rapt and fascinated spectators, engrossed and involved in some great tragedy, to purge the emotions of pity and terror: Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter to help him win a battle, The Trojan Women, The Bacchae.In such a drama, very few would speak. The leading actor would play several parts, surrounded by mute actors, and by the identically clad Chorus who moved in total unison. All deaths would take place off-stage, the slaugh­ter of men, women, and children reported by a Messenger who would tell of what he had seen. Such drama was an act of worship, a reminder of the transience of man’s life, a clear recognition of man’s powerlessness in the face of mutability.There would be the sound of a flute at sunrise, and through the central door on the raised platform a figure larger than life-size, wearing a huge tragic mask, raised up on high-soled boots, would enter and stand at the top of the flight of steps leading down into the circle. He would raise his head and look up at the tier upon tier of white faces surrounding him, rising higher and higher into the sky, before speaking the opening words of the tragedy which was to follow.The boy who had written that postcard had the same surname as the two brothers in Emil and the Detectives, the boys Emil had met in Berlin. Corrie remembered the younger brother, who usually never said a word, and the moment when everyone looked at him in amazement be­cause he spoke–“Fish is so good”–and he flushed deep red and hid behind his big brother.The figures in the restaurant reappeared. They all wore heavy coats, as if it were a cold country.Lilli continued looking at the television for a while, and then went towards the kitchen, her hand cupped around the gathered fir needles.“‘Hansel and Gretel’?” he asked. He had told her that the cartoon was going to be on television, thinking it would interest her.Lilli gave the suggestion her consideration, looking towards him.She always looked with great intensity at whoever she was talking to, concentrating very seriously. He had seen her sitting and talking to Matthias, side by side, both un­aware of their surroundings, looking very hard at each other, like two statesmen working together to solve an almost insurmountable world problem. Her eyes were a very bright blue, not faded, as you would expect in an old person: all the colours about her were rich and deep.Slowly she shook her head.“No. I think not.” She smiled, a little sadly. “No Han­sel. No Gretel.” She spoke quietly. He turned to look at her face more closely, to recognise by her expression the quality of the emotion he had heard in her voice, but she had gone into the kitchen.Her voice came back to him, louder. “The German Christmas will be ready at six o’clock.”“The English cup of tea will be ready shortly.”The news report ended, and the faces behind the flaw­less glass faded.The cartoon which followed was not the story of “Hansel and Gretel” he knew, the little boy and girl in the painting on his bedroom wall, the story he was trying to put into music.The first third of the story, a section he remembered vividly from when he was young (at his grandparents’ house in Dorset, on holiday, Lilli’s voice in his bedroom, the sound of the sea in the background), Hansel and Gretel’s realisation that their father and stepmother were taking them into the forest to be torn to pieces by wild animals, was completely omitted. The old woman in the gingerbread house was made a grotesque and hideous fiend, not an apparently normal old woman, helpful and kindly, the sort of person one could meet at any time; and it was not made clear that Hansel and Gretel were going to be cooked and eaten by the old woman.Some things were too frightening for children to know about, and who would wish to frighten children?He switched off the television, and went into the kit­chen. Lilli had gone through into her own house.The style of the cartoon had borne little relation to the style of Lilli’s illustrations for the story: the colours were garish, and the outlines crudely simplified. The precise detail and subtle colouring for which a Lilli Danielsohn water-colour was famous were entirely missing.

Editorial Reviews

Praise for Pinkerton’s Sister:“A brilliant book. . .very real and terribly distressing.” —A.S. Byatt “This quite extraordinary book has the intense, deeply focused power of cultural meditation, on certain themes of suffering, of childhood and family, triumphant in this almost unbearable world.” —New York Times Book Review “Compelling. . . . A very fine novel, at once sprawling and intimate, and blessed with gorgeous passages worthy of Henry James.” —Washington Post“Wondrously unsettling. . .a gorgeous conundrum, the result of a lifetime of close reading–and some 25 years of close writing.” —San Francisco Chronicle