Fiction as Palimpsest: The Revelatory Lie: Catherine Gammon’s The Martyrs, the Lovers

Reviewed by Geri Lipschultz

The Martyrs, the Lovers
By Catherine Gammon
55 Fathoms Publishing
Feb 2023, Paperback, 316 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1942797333

The German activist, Petra Kelly, perhaps best known as one of the founders of Germany’s Green Party, is both ghost and inspiration for Catherine Gammon’s fifth book (four novels and a story collection). The Martyrs, the Lovers tells the fascinating story of a modern-day Joan of Arc who stood up to the powers that be and who dedicated her life to causes we are still fighting for, problems we are still facing with regard to the environment, peace itself, not to mention a political landscape seething with fascism, the war against women—and the hazards of nuclear power. 

Here we see the roots of her calling, how she is called to an activism that called death threats upon her early on, and possibly had a hand in her death, hers and her lover’s, a man twenty years her senior, whose bodies are found only after three weeks’ mouldering, “like medieval lovers.” 

Piecing together the life and times and important events of her main character, Gammon provides us with historical context even as she centers a young female resister who “knew” from a young age, “who she was.”

You will not see anyone here in these pages with the name Petra Kelly, nor that of her lover, companion, and likely murderer in the double murder/suicide of Kelly and Gert Bastian. Gammon makes it clear that her use of the biography of Kelly is there to serve her storytelling. The fiction is exploratory in nature; it seduces the reader by way of exquisite language and pacing, a nonlinearity in its approach, along with the depth and intensity of the research. Controversy surrounds the deaths of the lovers; we know that before reading. And so we enter into the fiction with both curiosity and fascination, which Gammon masterfully both milks and sustains as she gives us the details, enough to keep us guessing, like voyeurs, like amateur sleuths, as though we might deduce the truth from her fiction—it’s seduction and frankly ingenious. 

The novel begins and ends with the mystery of what was determined to be either a suicide pact or the murder and subsequent suicide of the surviving lover—but there are other possibilities.  It is in part thriller, noir, a murder mystery; it’s history, it’s a deconstruction of fascism—today’s, yesterday’s and that which galvanized itself on the European continent even in the aftermath of World War 11.

Among the strategies here is the willing preparation of possible scenarios to decode and to deconstruct this mystery.

How many potential scenes for this cruel, unfathomable dual death, Gammon conjures—inflected and with detail—for the reader to imagine.

And she admits, “this, too, shall fail”—fail to correctly unravel the mysterious ending wherein a woman dedicated to life and to nonviolence could possibly agree to the double violence.

“I’m preparing myself,” Gammon writes, in Jutta Carroll’s voice. “I know who I am.” This is Jutta, whose body feels, absorbs the wounds of others, who has precognition, who feels “this chill” upon the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as those of the Kennedys. Who, when her much younger sister is dying of cancer seeks audience with the Pope; Jutta born into Catholicism will be taken in by Buddhism; her stand with Tibet, largely because of the missiles stationed by China, enlists the support of the Dalai Lama. 

Among Gammon’s gifts to the reader are her generous recreations of impossible scenes, such as when Jutta takes her dying young sister to see the Pope. When the Pope takes the sister’s hand, she, Emma, says: “She loves me so much, she just doesn’t want to let me go.”

The Pope speaks squarely to this child who knows in no uncertain terms that she is dying and will die–and then “ ‘…And sometimes though it grieves us,’ he added sotto voce to Jutta, and the translator after him, ‘He calls His little angels home.’”

Gammon takes the incontrovertible “facts” of this story and provides a voice, a new voice, a new cast of characters, and it is a permutation that invites the reader into the monumental archetype one might say, of a saint, of someone who has known form the start, that she will dedicate her life to a cause. And Gammon provides her with a human face. It’s as if in her Jutta character she gives life to, she opens a door to a more realized Petra Kelly. This is a fully fleshed out character. We are taken deeply into her, and because of her nobility, because of the nobility of the very real Petra Kelly, because of the way she outlasted her life, there is little we don’t want to know about her—there is something about this disparity that draws the reader in deep—and Gammon reels us in and gives us just what we need to understand what might compel a woman like Jutta, a woman like Petra Kelly, a woman so driven to follow her star with its demand of sacrifice: a woman with a healthy if complicated sexual drive, drawn to older men, married men. There are many. The most important among them is Lukas, a former soldier in Hitler’s army, whose remorse concerning his past may be partly responsible for his attraction to Jutta—not unlike the dynamic between Kelly and Bastian. 

But finally, it’s a novel—it’s the story of Jutta Carroll, a character who is at least as rich as Petra Kelly, the phantom with whom she shares much of history, much of her biography, much of her accomplishments and interests. But the narrative has a life of its own, has no loyalty to the actual character as it takes a nosedive into interior—and not only into Jutta’s but also that of her lover, Lukas Grimm; we will get to know him outside of the focalization by Jutta and our narrator. We will be provided with a full montage of his family—his wife (he remains married), the daughter who kills herself for her own inability to fathom her father’s participation in Hitler’s madness—along with Jutta’s family dynamics, especially her very close relationship with her grandmother, Omi—and with her sister, the daughter of her mother and stepfather; much of this coincides directly with the life of Kelly who was schooled by nuns, where she evinces a predilection for a cause, for dedicating her life: at first, Jutta imagines herself devoting herself to Catholicism, to be a nun. We see the sensitivity of Jutta as a child with an illness, with an abusive, abandoning father, a child with a craving for knowledge, a child who cannot sleep the requisite 8-10 hours due to the delicate nature of her constitution.

This book is an investigation, the strategy, multivocal as it enters into the consciousness of more than one character, but not for a minute letting the reader forget that this is Jutta’s story…Jutta as martyr, as lover. Jutta as a child who cannot come to terms with her father’s participation in the war, who then leaves Germany with her family, her mother’s remarried to an American Colonel, leaves for America and finds herself drawn to the plights of Blacks in the segregated South where she lives. Jutta who grows up wanting to be a nun—and much later finds out that the very nuns she idolized were responsible for hiding Dr. Mengele, the Nazi surgeon who experimented on Jewish bodies. Jutta who in her American schools is learning how to hide under her desk in the event of a bomb, will later learn that her stepfather witnessed the after-effects of the US bombing of Hiroshima, will sit with her younger sister who develops a terminal cancer, endures vicious radiation cures and dies before she reaches the double digits. Jutta, named for the teacher of the twelfth century mystic and composer Hildegard von/of Bingen, whom she will study, herself obsessed with learning, herself frail, with only one kidney, but who is driven to study the work of Gandhi, King, will  work for Robert F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, and will study Rosa Luxemburg, and who will return to Germany to be there, among those who start the Green Party and to be elected to the Bundestag, where she will uncompromisingly hold onto her ideals, will prepare actions against Pershing missiles, against nuclear power, she who had in America joined fellow pacifists in her Washington D.C. university during the US involvement in Viet Nam, in the march on the Pentagon. Jutta, known for her tireless work, barely getting five hours of sleep a night, who finds herself attracted to older, married men and who will ultimately at forty-four be murdered by Lukas, her fellow martyr, her lover—unless that isn’t how it happened at all. 

An intertextuality enhances the richness of the reading, with various quotations throughout —from Hildegard, from Luxemburg, from Alexandra Kollontai, from Goethe, and so many others—works that support and direct and feed Jutta, whose thirst for the literature is insatiable. 

Gammon in this way is not only exploring the character and her motivation but also educating the reader, guiding the reader to seek out the sources that inspired Jutta (and likely inspired Kelly). 

Here is a fiction whose ingredients comprise both fiction and fact, although you wouldn’t call it historical fiction, even though it enfolds within the context of history; if it were bread, its yeast is fiction: it would not rise without the freedom and mystery that fiction offers the writer, the power to invent, to imagine, to invest oneself into the act of finding form and matter, even as the matter itself here is informed by fact, by the historical fact.  

At times, the reader tends to want to know which is which, oddly part of the charm, and one must say that there’s a good argument for the writer to have made this choice.

The book starts there, our narrator outs herself—in a number of ways; she says she will fail to come to a conclusion; however, she will clearly postulate and lay out the possibilities, allowing the reader to come to her own conclusion—or not. 

At the heart of this story, there is a mystery—one that resists resolution.

The writer honors this, takes no easy outs; in fact this mystery becomes the impetus in more ways than one. 

Gammon’s narrator says: “Perhaps the reader knows who she is, was. Recognize her. It won’t help. The real woman died. This isn’t biography. The woman here is fiction, invention orbiting fact.”

She writes: “For the world she was a hero, even a saint.

“This is fiction,” Catherine Gammon writes—it’s not whipped, not immersed, but carefully folded in, and such as it is, reading this book sent me to the origin story (I ransacked the internet)…but this thing that she’s done, the framing, to cast both into the net of a very real history and to the webs of the imagination, allowing for a parallel world–simultaneously, such a feeling of palimpsest, of the weaving of what was and what could have been—and that which was—is gone—yet how instructive, how prescient, how deeply resonant at this time in our lives are the concerns of both the character and the real politician/activist who inspired this character. 

It’s exquisitely crafted and it’s compelling for the content, for these concerns, the questions, the seeking of this character, the exploration into the farthest reaches of what constitutes a person, her desire, her reason for resistance, the extreme sense of integrity, the failure to understand or tolerate those who participate in protests, in activism for the sheer rebellion of it, for the fun, the party, the drugs, the sex—this is exhaustive in its treatment by Gammon. Where Jutta stands with respect to love, motherhood (yes, she will find herself pregnant), activism, this Jutta conjured partly from Petra Kelly—a writer, politician, and activist—and partly from the invention sparked by Gammon’s voyage into this history.

This book serves a dual purpose, one in its homage to Petra Kelly and to the history responsible for generating such a one as she. This is both a German history, and a world history—and we would do well to remember it. We would do well to remember the pall it placed upon those who lived where fascism flourished—a pall that lasted for generations, a pall where no apology will do, the pall that happens after violence to both the perpetrators and the victims alike.

We would do well to remember this right around now as the elements of fascism, the elements of violence, fester in the so-called land of the free. 

We would do well to be better caretakers of the earth, the environment, and each other. 

We would do well to stand up to the powers that be when they are not taking care of us. 

About the reviewer: Geri Lipschultz has published in the New York Times, the Toast, Black Warrior Review, College English and others. Her work appears in Pearson’s Literature: Introduction to Reading and Writing and in Spuyten Duyvil’s The Wreckage of Reason II. She teaches writing at Hunter College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. Geri was awarded a Creative Artists in Public Service grant from New York State. Her one-woman show “Once Upon the Present Time” was produced in NYC by Woodie King, Jr.

An edited version of this review first appeared in Ms, March 2023: