Eva’s Threepenny Theatre
And the premise is interesting. Steinmetz is intent on preserving the story of his great aunt, Eva Mathilde Steinmetz, who played a whore in a workshop production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera in Berlin in 1928. When the book opens, she has been in Canada for decades, and is now living with an aging gay friend and a passel of beloved dogs in London, Ontario. She also is dying of pancreatic cancer, and Steinmetz is recording her stories as he has been recording his father’s memories of the family, particularly those about Eva’s brother, Steinmetz’s grandfather. Germany and Austria under Hitler, refuge in Zurich during World War II, South America after the War: Steinmetz recounts the stories, and puts his own glosses on them.
The family is one which discovered too late that it was part Jewish. Eva, her sisters, and her brother, Hermann Hans, had been brought up as strict Lutherans. Heinrich Hans, Steinmetz’s grandfather, even spent much of his early adolescence out in the woods with Hitler Youth. After the discovery, both Eva and HH, as he was called, escape Germany, but the oldest sibling has herself declared illegitimate, thereby removing the Jewish-ness from her ancestry. (A third sister who had turned mute at the death of their mother survives by assuming the identity of an orphan servant.) The adventures that Eva and HH encounter – among them the time he saved his wife and children from death in an airplane accident by piloting it down to a glider-like landing in the Columbian jungle – make for good reading.
But Steinmetz is after something more. The book is billed as “an unusual blend of fiction and memoir,” and certainly those who know the author and his family in Montreal will see differences between his book and the “real” story. For example, the father of Steinmetz the narrator is a psychiatrist, while the father of Steinmetz the author is a well-known pediatrician and hospital administrator. Steinmetz also expends much ink on recounting Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera scene by scene and quoting both Brecht and Max Ophüls on acting and the theory of drama. At the end of the book the reader may be puzzled by these intrusions, which seem at first to be pedantry that slows down the telling of an exciting story. Why didn’t Steinmetz, who is both an editor (for Véhicule Press’s Esplanade Books) and the author of another memoir and two books of poetry, tell Eva’s story in a more straightforward way? Certainly it contains enough drama to fill two or three novels, while what happened to her brother would be good for a couple of screenplays.
It took this reader three days of reflection before she figured out what Steinmetz was doing: by telling Eva’s story in such a fragmented way, he applies some of Brecht’s ideas to fiction. As one character muses, Brecht’s methods are a “rebellion against providence and lot and predestination and destiny, in favour of human judgment and intervention. In favour of man.” And woman. Eva’s Threepenny Theatre is a tribute to her character and strength, and to her success in living the life she chose for herself. As for her grandnephew’s book, it is worth reading – and, just as importantly, worth thinking about afterwards.mRb