At the Wolf’s Table: A Novel by Rosella Postorino is the internationally bestselling novel based on the true story of Margot Wölk (1917-2014). She was a German secretary, who in 1942 was selected with other 14 women to taste Adolf Hitler’s food in case it were poisoned. Only many years later Margot Wölk, sole survivor of the group of tasters after the Second World War decides to publicly tell her story. She is 95 years old, and she reveals her truth only two years before dying in 2014. Hers is indeed an extremely hard story to tell and to live.
It is the story of a group of women in an ambiguous situation: on the one hand they have the privilege to eat delightful and abundant dishes in a period of food shortage but, on the other hand, they are forced to risk their life every day feeling guilty as they were indirectly fostering Hitler hence Nazism. The book explores some of the author’s favourite themes: the ambiguity of human instincts, the thin border between the victim and the perpetrator, coercion, the effects of totalitarian organisations on people.
However setting the story during the Holocaust – one of the darkest period in human history that caused 17 million of people, among which 6 million of Jews – that shook profoundly the pillars of collective unconscious, makes the words of the book go deeply down to the subconscious. They echo in that confuse zone where the emotional and instinctual drives of human experience are released from personality and consequences to enter a dark place like a black hole: a singularity of evil.
Rosela Postorino tries to go there, though always keeping a tight control over darkness. She tells the story by the tasters’ perspective which is original yet dangerous as it is that of the perpetrators, or better of those who join them in order to survive. Therefore, at the beginning of the reading one is struck by a particular and almost uncomfortable impression; a kind of disturbing guilt mixed with indignation so that one may be willing to yell at Postorino’s antiheroine: “Rosa please do something, run away, rebel to this! How can you stand tasting food to safeguard the evil man the rest of the world is trying to kill?”
Then the moment she starts a love affair with an SS capitan, it seems way too much and one wonders how such a conduct may get along with the sensitivity and humanity Postorino endowed her main character with. We may take into consideration the effects of the Stockholm syndrome, a condition that causes victims to develop a psychological and affective alliance with their perpetrators, but this does not offer an exhausting explanation for a morbid love affair. This personality discrepancy creates a tension that makes the novel a page-turner as one is eager to find a reason for these contrasts. However, we do know that once the borders of morals are crossed, people’s motivations are hardly explicable through logic. They instead result soaked in an emotional promiscuity that weighs them down just before make them elusively disappear.
Then we may turn to the work of Hanna Arendt, the German philosopher naturalised as American citizen and in particular to her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. It reports on Adolf Eichmann‘s trial for The New Yorker. He was a German Nazi SS lieutenant colonel and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. The book offers an insightful reflection on the nature of evil. She underlines how one of the most frightening aspects of the Nazism was the banality of evil, namely the evil becoming part of everyday life, widely accepted as a normal aspect of daily routine. This was achieved by the ruling power taking advantage of human primordial drives and in particular of the instinct for survival.
Postorino’s At the Wolf’s Table, telling a story that turns the ordinary and nurturing experience of eating into a potentially deathly one, seems to take part into the philosophical research about the nature of evil. It shows how human affective and instinctual complexities may be manipulated, transforming people silently and progressively into intentionally unaware assets for the power to use for its means, even when they are opposite to people ethics. And it is indeed this distortion that explain Rosa’s flush of love for a perpetrator.
Passing down the memory of Hitler’s tasters in order to reveal and raise awareness about the nature of evil and its traps seems to be the most original and key aspect that makes this novel worth reading. What are your thoughts about it?