In the Darkroom review – an elegant masterpiece

Susan Faludi’s funny, painful investigation of identity centres on her father’s gender reassignment and a family history of Hungary under Nazi occupation

In the summer of 2014, Susan Faludi, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, and her father, whose name we will get to later, visited the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest. Although the museum was then participating in what the country’s rightwing government, desperate for some good PR, had decreed was Holocaust Remembrance Year, it was obvious to both Faludis that in this case the word “remembrance” meant something close to precisely the opposite. The forgetting was everywhere. In the room dedicated to the second world war, the theme was mostly one of German culpability in the matter of the deaths of 565,000 Hungarian Jews; just two small plaques made any mention of the Arrow Cross, the country’s very own national socialist party, and then in language so evasive as to be almost meaningless. Only when they descended to the basement did they finally discover an exhibit that really did do some remembering, for here they found, after two hours of searching, some portraits of Hungarian Holocaust survivors and their descendants by the Israeli photographer Aliza Auerbach.

The room was small and windowless, and the pair were at first discombobulated. Slowly, though, they came to their senses, circuiting it until they arrived at a photograph of the 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren of Dina Friedman, who was deported to Auschwitz in May 1944. It was – this may sound odd – an intoxicating moment. Upstairs, the fact that Adolf Eichmann, no less, had declared himself delighted by the Hungarian state’s enthusiasm for the Final Solution appeared to have escaped the attention of the museum’s curators. But in this room, blame had not been pushed elsewhere, for which reason, perhaps, it could now be spoken aloud. “Let the people of Hungary look at them!” said Faludi’s father, addressing a non-existent crowd. “They turned their back. They never looked at who was taken. These people were just like them. They spoke the same language. They were your neighbours. They were your friends. And you let them die!” Susan Faludi listened to this in silence, and then the two of them turned on their heels and left. They had seen – or not seen – quite enough for one day.

As I’ve described it, this scene probably doesn’t seem so remarkable: what right-minded person wouldn’t have felt some measure of fury at such a wiping of history? But when it appears in Faludi’s mighty new book, In the Darkroom, it does so at a point when the reader has long since given up hope of hearing such words. Her father, a photographer who was born in Hungary and has now, in old age, made her home in the country once again, has hitherto been in denial about its latent fascism. “It’s not a problem,” she tells her daughter, when black-shirted young people are seen marching through Budapest’s public squares; when a party dominated by outspoken antisemites does well in the election; when the Jews and Roma are once again the victims of violent assaults. Such willed blindness. What has made this all the more distressing – and you’ll have noticed those rogue pronouns, the feminine “she” and “her” used in conjunction with the masculine “father” – is that she (Faludi’s father) is not only a Jew, much of whose family was wiped out in the Holocaust, but also a transgender woman. Her refusal to acknowledge Hungary’s slide back into extremism isn’t only an insult to others; it’s a violent attack on herself.

What prodigious self-loathing. First, it bewildered me, and then it disgusted me, and then, as she stood in that basement allowing the rage to rise inside her at last, it filled me with pity. Faludi is a mercilessly droll and careful writer. The emotional incontinence and narcissism that pass for insight and power in memoirs these days is not for her; being interested in facts, she is unlikely to play the dubious trump card of personal experience. All the same, I cried quite often as I read her book, and at this point, I had to go off and stare at some flowers for a while. What it cost her father to say these words, and how expertly Faludi had ensured that I would feel that price.

Faludi’s book, a searching investigation of identity barely disguised as a sometimes funny and sometimes very painful family saga, begins in 2004, when she receives an email from her estranged father, Steven. It is headed, with some understatement, “changes”, and it contains a bit of “interesting news”: Steven, having undergone gender reassignment surgery in Thailand, now wishes to be known as Stephanie. Faludi is a reporter to her bones. She and her father, to whose violence and controlling personality she attributes the birth of her own passionate feminism, have not spoken for 27 years. But she is soon on a plane to Budapest, her Dictaphone in her bag (Stephanie, having divorced her American mother in 1977, returned to Hungary from New York after the fall of communism). She has questions, though not of the banal “when-did-you-first-start-thinking-you-were-a-woman?” kind. Faludi is suspicious of the bottle labelled Identity, vexed by the peddling of female stereotypes when it comes to the literature of transgender women and, in the case of her father, unconvinced that psychological ambiguity can be turned “into certainty in the flesh”. She cannot go along with the idea of a past that is just that – gone, absolutely – whether in the case of a Jew who, like her father, can’t bear “whining” about the Holocaust and prefers to pass as a shiksa, or of a man who is now a woman (Stephanie regards Steven as dead). What does it mean to kill someone off, metaphorically speaking? This is the question that informs the extraordinary narrative that follows.

In her house on a Buda hill, Faludi and her father get reacquainted, a difficult and sometimes awkward experience: at first, Stephanie is all performance, her appearance at her daughter’s bedroom door in her floral housecoat, or a dress that she requires zipping up, at once both provocative and gently comic. “Stephanie’s Schloss was starting to feel more like Dracula’s Castle,” writes Faludi, of her refusal to take her out to see her childhood haunts. On the page, Stephanie is a huge character: Holocaust survivor, American dad, Magyar repatriate, overdressed shiksa. Her new identity is in a bizarre dance with the old. As a Jew, Steven fled Hungary after the war, travelling to Brazil and then America. Back in the country, Stephanie can’t get her family’s stolen property back. But thanks to her new gender, she finds herself employing the son of their former gardener: “Now that I’m a lady, men have to help me,” she says, delightedly.

And yet, vivid as she appears, she remains, for a long time, a cipher. “Waaall,” she will say, about to evade yet another of Susan’s inquiries. Why won’t she talk of the past? What is the relationship between the confection that is Magyar history – a history to which she is confoundingly attached – and the confection that is her own life? Finally, her story begins to spool out: the beginning (and perhaps the end) of it is that Steven’s neglectful bourgeois parents left their son to his own devices during the Occupation, and so he spent his days alternately hiding and masquerading as a Nazi, and all the while hoping never to be asked by any passing officer to drop his trousers. At this point, you hope for clarity, for closure. What you get, however, is something much better. Faludi’s book, reticent and elegant and extremely clever, will not be to everyone’s taste. But this doesn’t preclude it from being an out-and-out masterpiece of its kind. Its author understands that reinvention and disavowal are different things, with very different consequences, but she also has the wisdom to grasp that sometimes you can’t slip a cigarette paper between cowardice and bravery. Quite often, in fact, they may be exactly the same thing.

In the Darkroom is published by Collins, £16.99. Click here to order a copy for £12.99


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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