|Review published in Revolutionary History, Vol. 10, No. 4 (2012)
Merilyn Moos, The Language of Silence, Cressida Press in conjunction with Writersworld, Woodstock Oxfordshire, 2010, 288 pp, £9.99.
Merilyn Moos’s novel The Language of Silence is a fascinating study of political activism and everyday life over eight decades. The heroine, Anna Weilheimer (who, despite the disclaimer in the preface, has a marked resemblance to Merilyn herself) lives in London in the early twenty-first century. Her elderly mother is suffering from dementia and requires residential care. As she tries to deal with her mother’s problems, Anna becomes more and more curious about her parents, refugees from Nazi Germany. The central core of the novel is Anna’s slow and difficult attempt to dig out the truth about her parents’ and grandparents’ experiences and commitments in the 1930s.
And these discoveries help to explain why Anna’s parents were so overprotective during her childhood, of which there is a powerful and poignant description. Judged by today’s standards, most people in the 1940s and 1950s had repressive childhoods, but Anna’s had its own very special horrors.
Anna has a son, Sam. While she is anxious not to make the same mistakes as her own parents, she cannot avoid friction, and the relationship is often difficult. Sam becomes a committed climate change activist. In some ways his life and preoccupations seem very remote from those of his grandparents; he is sceptical of the traditional tactics of the left. Yet there is also a powerful sense of the continuity of struggle; future historians may well note that climate change killed many more than the Holocaust. As I read the book, I was reminded of Victor Serge’s prediction that the successful revolution will be made by those who are “infinitely different from us, infinitely like us ”.
This summary does not exhaust the complex range of themes covered in the novel. The personal and the political are constantly intertwined; as Anna notes, her very conception was a result of the battle of Stalingrad: “If it had not been for the millions of Russians who gave their lives in 1942, pushing back the Nazi invaders, my parents would not have felt safe enough to have had a child”.
Anna’s loathing of Nazi anti-Semitism is combined with, indeed seems to inspire, a committed anti-Zionism; visiting her mother in a Jewish care home, Anna announces in a loud voice that she is off to a “Hands off Lebanon” demonstration.
Questions of identity and oppression run through the book. It is now easy enough to sentimentalise refugees from Hitler, safely in the past. But Anna draws out the parallel with today’s asylum seekers: meeting a Nigerian refugee she notes: “At least there was some sympathy for left-wing intellectuals fleeing Nazism. For him, it’s out of the frying pan into the fire.”
Anna is also a college lecturer and trade-union activist. There is disappointingly little about this in the book – hopefully Merilyn is planning a sequel. She notes, “management was child’s play compared to the feuding with members of the Communist Party and the Maoists.” Many will remember Merilyn as one of the main driving forces in the ATTI/NATFHE Rank and File organisation in the 1970s, where much of the left in NATFHE/UCU cut their political teeth. I still have vivid memories of being repeatedly telephoned at midnight to discuss amendments to Outer London Region standing orders. But probably few of us who knew Merilyn at that time realised the complexity of her political motivation. It is a salutary reminder that those who devote themselves to the necessary but burdensome minutiae of trade-union organisation generally do so because they have a broader political vision.
We can only regret that, unsurprisingly, such an interesting novel did not get the commercial sponsorship and promotion it deserved.