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The Pretender

By Mary Morrissy
Published by Jonathan Cape

Mary Morrissy’s delightfully subtle new novel tells the story, in a fragmented structure which begins at the end and then works its way back to the beginning until we come around to the end again, of Franziska Schanzkowska, the Polish peasant who, after two years of incarceration in a Berlin asylum, claims to be Anastasia, the fourth and only surviving daughter of the Tsar of Russia. Yet so adept is Morrissy as a narrative strategist, let alone as a stylist, that we readers are not sure for much of the book whether this fiction-within-the-fiction (based on a true story) is true or not.
We start in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1978, with Anastasia as an old woman married to a retired historian some twenty years her junior, but an avid defender of her cause. Then we cut back to the Dalldorf Asylum, Berlin, 1922, where Franziska is taken after throwing herself from a bridge into the Landwehr Canal, intent on suicide. There she becomes Fraulein Unbekannt, the unknown woman, until under the influence of helpful hints from another inmate, she finds her true vocation as Princess Anastasia. Then there are two short sections, the first exploring Franziska’s state of mind before jumping from the bridge, the second in the voice of Anastasia herself, recounting what happened her in Yekaterinberg, Siberia, during the revolution.

 

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Next it is Berlin 1914, and we learn what drove Franziska away from her Polish home, and meet the family with which, as a lodger, she endures the increasing privations of war, and her gruesome job as worker in a munitions factory. The sad story of her lost first love is also revealed. Aside from unwanted pregnancy, it was injuries received through a horrific accident in the factory which finally sent her over the edge, marks which later become bayonet scars inflicted at the botched execution at Yekaterinberg.
The following segment takes us back to Borowy Las, 1900, and Sissy’s childhood in rural Poland. In this section a dead stepmother and a drowned younger brother introduce the young Franziska to the fluidity of identity, and the strange and nebulous relationship between appearance and reality, truth and falsity. On learning that her authoritarian and emotionally distant father was married previously, and that her elder siblings are half-brothers and sisters, we are told that Sissy:

"...pondered on this new knowledge, this sudden doubling up. It was simple, Mother said, two families had become one, but to Sissy it seemed that one had become two".

The novel comes full circle with a motorcycle cop arresting Franziska, now fully evolved into Anastasia, and her husband Jack, whom she calls Hans in remembrance of her fiancé killed in the war, in Culpeper, Virginia in November 1983, after Jack has kidnapped her from a local asylum. An end note tells us that:

Anastasia Manahan died on 12 February 1984 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Franziska Schanzkowska disappeared in Berlin in early 1920. Officially, her fate remains unknown.

Such a schematic synopsis of the novel cannot do justice to what is a rich, mesmerising mosaic, the kind of book you want to read twice to appreciate in its fullness. With marvellous recurring imagery throughout, particularly that of eggs, both natural and fashioned, and a wonderful use of language - where does she get these verbs, like tamping, louring, dreeping? - this is a joyous, poignant and thought-provoking read. After all, as Anastasia finally demands of a persistent TV reporter: ‘Can you really prove to me who you are?’
The Irish novels - that is, novels by an Irish writer - that this most reminded me of are John Banville’s atmospheric historico-philosophical meditations, Doctor Copernicus and Kepler, even if the period is different. It testifies to the survival skills employed by resourceful women in a calamitous world. It probably won’t chime with the current times, when everyone in this Cartoon City is looking for Something for the Weekend, but amid much contemporary dross it is good to have such a gem.

First published in Books Ireland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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