Bertolt Brecht’s epigraph from The Threepenny Opera at the beginning of Rosella Postorino’s novel At the Wolf’s Table ushers in the undertone characterizing the story the reader is about to peruse: “A man can only live by absolutely forgetting he’s a man like other folk.” Forgetting is one way to survive troubled times. The narrating voice offers another one: “My mother used to say eating was a way of battling death” (4). Ten hungry women are marshaled into a room, luxurious food is placed in front of them, but feelings of anxiety, gloom, and distress are more palpable than their long-standing hunger. The room is subdued: “If we were wearing veils we would look like nuns, a refectory of nuns who’ve taken the vows of silence” (4, emphasis in the original). They are urged to eat, the lavish fare in their plates not enough of a motivation for them to start quenching their appetite. Yet, it is not a courteous request, it is an order to fulfill their job: they are the food tasters at the service of the Wolf, and they cannot refuse to perform their duty.
Postorino’s novel, the 2018 winner of the Premio Campiello, a prestigious Italian award for literature, is a work of fiction loosely based on a true story recently revealed by Margot Wölk, one of the ten women tasked with the duty of tasting the food to be served to Adolf Hitler (the Wolf in the title). The novel is mostly set in the last years of World War II, 1943-5, in a place located in East Prussia, Gross-Partsch, near the bunker where the dictator hides with his cohort and personal guard. The women were chosen among the inhabitants of the town, bussed in and out the barracks on a daily basis, like mundane, working class commuters. Among them, some are fervent supporters of the Nazi regime and therefore enthusiastic about their task (labeled “the fanatics” by the narrator), others are painfully aware of being entrapped in a dangerous and fundamentally coercive situation, one that they won’t be able to escape or reject. As “coworkers,” a few food tasters develop relationships that could turn into a true friendship under different circumstances, but their restrictive condition makes every intimate confession a potential downfall given the state of exception (a state in which basic civil and political rights, such as speech, press, and assembly are prohibited) they all live in.[i] As a matter of fact, an incautious revelation to the wrong person by one of the food tasters will rapidly snowball and cause a series of unfortunate events, culminating in the removal of another of the “coworkers,” whose ultimate fate is easily predictable as she disappears and will not be heard of ever again.
As the story goes on, Rosa Sauer, the narrator, illustrates her struggle to deal with her husband’s decision to enlist and fight for Germany, and how his prolonged absence is deeply affecting her life, forcing her to question her current and past choices, her German-ness (“I had never been a good German,” 37), even her merit as a human being (“I don’t deserve anything except what I do: eating Hitler’s food, eating for Germany, not because I love it, or even out of fear. I eat Hitler’s food because it’s what I deserve, it’s what I am,” 73, emphasis in the original). Originally from Berlin, she stands out because of her clothes, her shoes, her manners. She is noticed, bullied, befriended. Her loneliness is palpable, and well-rendered: “I clung to her body full of sharp edges. It wasn’t waiting for anyone, that body, it could offer refuge to mine. It was so warm, so welcoming, that the sobs welled up in my chest until they overflowed” (78).
Rosa would love to be able to confide in someone, but she now lives with her in-laws, and they cannot perform that role, mostly because the nature of her thoughts – and, later, deeds – would horrify them. With her self-esteem diminishing by the day, it will take an all too human moment to help her restore some degree of self-confidence, with the complicity of an unlikely partner. By the same act, however, Rosa falls deeper into what Primo Levi named “the grey zone” [ii], the zone where survival is the only goal, achieved through whatever means possible. In the grey zone what is right and what is wrong blur, leaving those who find themselves in it ethically challenged (“Questions crowded my mind. I silenced them” 152) and subject to remorse ex-post, yet incapable of acting differently than how they do (“What allowed human beings to live under a dictatorship? We had no alternative—that was our alibi,” 126).
There is an unshakeable aura of doom and gloom throughout the novel, an atmosphere of oblivious awareness (if I may adopt an oxymoron) that disaster is about to strike, that in the state of exception catastrophe is the rule and one’s life is always at risk. Even those characters seemingly optimistic and light-minded, such as the Baroness Maria Von Mildernhagen and her husband, will not be able to avoid their fall, only a few months before Germany’s demise. When laughter and love come into the picture, they are merely further marks of moral corruption and degeneracy: “The ability to adapt is human beings’ greatest resource, but the more I adapted, the less human I felt” (161).
The original Italian title of the novel, Le assaggiatrici or The Food Tasters, begs the question: why such a departure in the English translation? The place of agency (women who act, perform a specific action) is replaced by a sort of objective, perhaps sanitized description that echoes the title of a still life painting, whereas the book cover – depicting a woman’s hand holding an apple – brings back the human, feminine element of the story and its related biblical misdeed. Without knowing the decision process behind these choices, one can only conjecture. Arguably, the ten women at the center of the plot are turned into spectators rather than actors, their will no longer a possible factor in the story. They are acted upon, almost commodified. Being at the Wolf’s table is stated matter-of-factly. At the same time, the image on the cover evokes a long-standing sinful choice eternally associated with womanhood.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention that Part Three of the novel provides an anti-climactic finale to the story, as if the author couldn’t let her work go, concluding with the end of Rosa’s tragic experience as a food taster for the Wolf. Set in 1990, some four and a half decades after World War II, Rosa is still lonely and incapable of telling her story in its entirety, her character still torn between remorse and affection. The last scene takes place in another room where people eat, but the contrast is quite striking. Once again, Rosa will come out of it unscathed on the outside, uneasy inside: as is the story of her life, it seems.
Postorino, Rosella. At the Wolf’s Table. Translated by Leah Janeczko. Flatiron Books, 2019.
[i] On the state of exception see Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz. The Archive and the Witness [1999, original in 1998] and State of Exception [2005, original in 2003]
[ii] P. Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 1988