The Martyrs, The Lovers by Catherine Gammon; 55 Fathoms Publishing LLC; 316 pgs.; $21.95
Catherine Gammon’s new novel The Martyrs, The Lovers begins in medias res – a chilling introduction to the disjointed political and psychological mystery to follow. Loosely based around the factual life and death of Petra Kelly, German Green Party activist, and her partner Gerd Bastien, Gammon details the brutal underpinnings of American and German histories through the activism and ambition of fictional Jutta Carroll and her lover Lukas Grimm. Delicately complex and beautifully crafted explorations of the challenges to justice and the environment that often threaten personal wellbeing and geopolitical progress make this novel as timely as it is telling.
Gammon’s thorough and nonjudgmental thematic examination of false martyrdom and silence concealing masked generational and personal trauma will haunt readers long after the novel is complete. Jutta’s internalization of past physical and emotional abuse – both personal and historical at the hands of powerful men – is the most gut-wrenching cautionary tale to unravel, and should perhaps come with a warning. Gammon writes, “Jutta carries this warrior culture with her, into the future, into the rest of her life. (Jeanne d’Arc, after all, led armies.) She wills herself onward, lives in the consciousness of history unfolding moment by moment, the personal permeated with the political, the fate of the world always at stake. Only her physical pain expresses rebellion against this internalized economy of readiness and alert.” Jutta’s inability to cope with the physical abuse of her father in childhood and the silence of millions during the Nazi’s rise to power manifests in “warrior culture” as extremes: self-harm, martyrdom, and infidelity. Even in her complex relationship with Lukas, Gammon’s subtle nods to the tourniquets of trauma are palpable: “When Lukas spoke I listened. He adored me and his eyes were the universe, the eyes of God. Even angry, impatient, frustrated, to me he gave way in all things. He opened a space around me which no one else could enter. He emptied himself and offered the empty container of himself to me to fill. He was the lover of my soul. He knew that place of silence I went to.” Jutta’s necessity for control over message and men hides deep wounds and voids no cause can fill.
While a heavy mental load, Gammon’s prose, alternate points of view, and subversion of conventional linearity demonstrates careful consideration and total authorial control. This dedication to craftsmanship shines bright in Gammon’s dualities: her creations of public versus private personas, the real versus the imagined, fact intertwining with fiction. Jutta and Lukas’s unraveling – their uneasiness and unwellness – mirrors the exhausting extremes of private ambition in the public fight for political causes. Gammon writes, “Focus instead on the particular action, the particular issues of the moment, or even the particular scandal . . . Focus on the particular act of courage, the particular act of heroism or generosity. Get good photos . . . Focus on the personality. Recognize her glamour and, at her side, his. Elaborate their glamour, create it. Use them. Seduce them. Dazzle them with the illusion that their personal fame strengthens their cause (which in the short term, of course, it does).” Jutta’s public and ambitious dedication to ecological and social activism conceals unacknowledged private pain: “Her body made pain. She lived with pain as a constant, at times more acute, at others less. She assigned her pain no meaning. Not as a child or an adolescent, not as a young woman or a woman matured. Her body made pain. She lived with it. In the form of pain, her body was enemy, allied with the enemy, the forces of destruction that threatened all life on earth. To deal with her pain was a burden . . . a distraction from causes more urgent that her own comfort or ease.” Through her powerful dualities and historical perspectives, Gammon forewarns readers that although dedication to peaceful protesting for various timely causes is commendable, we must take pause in all the noise before internalizing every societal ill. Often, calculated public personas mask the harmful private embodiment of enemy narratives.
Even with these stunning and often hurried dualities, when Gammon’s writing quiets, stills, in a few vulnerable, introspective moments, true linguistic levity is achieved. During one such moment, Jutta laments, “Our friends know the contradiction in which I live: to the world I embody the movement for peace and ecology, but in the ecology of the self I run myself ragged, waste my resources, allow my body no rest. My only defense, my excuse: I have too little time.” There is a lot to unpack on each page; for example, the geographical and historical leaps from campaigns in Bavaria against NATO’s Euromissiles to Jutta’s garden, wild and overgrown, to Auschwitz concentration camps can cause serious whiplash. Yet, while these jumps through time and space blend fact and fiction, they also act as testaments to Gammon’s literary and stylistic precision. However, it is the smaller moments, tucked deep within, where true beauty and vulnerability radiate – we connect with Jutta and each other through continued plights for causes, but we cannot tout justice for all without simultaneously taking care of our own biases, vulnerabilities, and mental, physical, and emotional wellness.
Toward the end of the narrative, Gammon pens, “Make of us what you will. We don’t go away.” Many may read this as political commentary to fight on for truth and justice, but a rush to judgement would be foolish. Cries for protest, retaliation, and retribution in causes and news cycles may be loud; systems are indeed broken; and we have much work to do. But the true power of Gammon’s writing warns against too hasty an action, too bold a declaration. In addition, we must address the inequities in our relationships and ourselves – our own messiness – before we can stake claim and decry the madness in others.