With a statement like ‘Meanwhile, in Zurich …’ Eva did not mean at the same time in Zurich; she meant, rather, at the same time plus or minus five to thirty years. Eva trumped the calendar with character. She implied that a range of thirty years, or five or fifty years, made no difference. It wasn’t that her memory was failing—the opposite was true. Through memory, she was saving experience, redeeming it from time’s linearity, the ruthlessness of numbers—from rigid conclusions of cause and effect. Her memory shot through every age, simultaneously, back to front and front to back, the eternal through the heart of the ephemeral. Eva spoke like a champion. The victor writes history; the adult writes childhood; and identity is something like a personal best. It survives the truth. When Eva talked to me, time glistened in her eyes. I found that if I listened to the tapes in a random sequence, it was the only way I could begin to see things her way.
After two years of it sitting on my shelf, I’m finally sitting down to reading Ottawa author Andrew Steinmetz’ Ottawa Book Award-winning novel/memoir Eva’s Threepenny Theatre (Wolfville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2008). The author of the poetry collection Histories (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press/Signal Editions, 2000) and the magnificent memoir Wardlife: The Apprenticeship of a Young Writer as a Hospital Clerk (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 1999), Steinmetz takes from the story of his own (according to the back cover) “great-aunt Eva who performed in an early touring production of Bertolt Brecht’s masterpiece, The Threepenny Opera, in 1928.” There is something about the blend of fiction and non-fiction that Steinmetz writes that is entirely compelling, using the same structure here, but where he leaned more on the side of creative non-fiction in Wardlife, he leans more toward fiction in this, making it, truly, a first novel. There is just something about Steinmetz’ prose that is magnificent; a language so tight, so taut, you could nearly bounce quarters off it. There is something of the many-layered scrapbook to this book, a collage of a family history wrapped up through the inconsistencies and confusions of a main storyteller talking to our narrator, along with a number of secondary sources. Do stories need not to compete or contradict to still be considered true? Steinmetz moves back and forth from directly relating Eva’s first-person storytelling to a storytelling by Eva and some others through the filter of the narrator, working his way through his great-aunt’s story of growing up, theatre, wartime and escape. Why did it take me so long to finally read this worthy and compelling first novel?