Novelists debut places emphasis on emptiness

On the surface, it seems hard to characterize Anna Winger’s “This Must Be the Place” as a Jewish novel. Neither of its two main characters were raised Jewish, and there are few mentions of modern Jewish life.

But Winger’s debut takes place in Berlin, making the story thick with themes of Jewish identity, history and culture — and the bewilderment felt from the absence of them.

Set in late 2001, “This Must Be the Place” follows a young American named Hope who wanders around the stark apartment her husband has rented for them in a once-grand neighborhood of former West Berlin. Hope, still shell-shocked from her up-close 9/11 experience and a recent miscarriage, befriends her neighbor, Walter Baum, a balding actor whose main source of income is providing the German voice for Tom Cruise’s movies.

Idolized in his early 20s for his role in a “Bonanza”-like German TV show, Walter dreams of to returning to California and picking up his American acting career where it left off (at Disneyland, playing Prince Charming).

A kind of awkward, platonic love story begins to evolve. The two are both lonely (Hope’s husband, the novel’s only Jewish character, makes few appearances) and find in each other a rapt audience — her for the grief; him for the anecdotes.

In a country where the political trumps the personal and World War II’s violence is “old news,” he marvels that Hope is impressed with the details of his East German childhood.

“As a kid, the worst of German history is beaten into you from every angle,” he explains.

Later he elaborates on the inescapable pall Hitler’s legacy has cast on his country, invoking national shame: “Most Germans of my generation would love to be Jewish. Even just a little … Everyone wants to identify with the oppressed, not the oppressors, to relieve their own inherited guilt. If you ask, almost everyone here will claim that their own family had nothing to do with the Holocaust, that they were hiding Jews in the basement, or in the attic, or under the bed.”

And this is how the book’s subtle majesty shines: Jewish themes emerge from the periphery — tacitly but relentlessly. In a place like Berlin, how could they not?

In one scene that’s a bit obvious but effective nonetheless, Hope peels back the layers of wallpaper in her apartment, shredding through flower patterns and avocado green prints to discover the hand-painted décor of the home’s original inhabitants — in what was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood before 1938.

And the nearby synagogue fascinates her: Why must it still be guarded by soldiers? Why do the congregants worship anonymously?

It’s Walter’s gradual revelations about his American-born mother and his time in California that give the book its greatest emotional charge. His perfect English, vast knowledge of Top 40 lyrics from the ’80s and connections to Hollywood can’t save him from his German roots, raising questions about the global influence of American culture.

He is fascinated that Hope was in New York when the Twin Towers came down, but disagrees with a friend who thinks that Hope should use this as a “trump card” to win an argument.

“It’s the present-day equivalent of rolling up your sleeve to show us [your] number,” shrugs the friend.

Certainly, the 3,000 who perished on 9/11 were a loss, but that the casualties can be compared to the 6 million Jews killed just two generations back says much about where modern Germans find meaning.

Winger presents a Berlin whose post-Holocaust history has been swallowed by the post-Wall era. The author, a Jewish American raising her family among the bombed-out buildings and shiny new construction, captures a post-postmodern emptiness that no amount of

“I Love N.Y.” T-shirts or hip nightclubs can fill.

Stranded between the silent crush of the city’s past and the jackhammer noise of its rebirth, Winger’s characters are left to create meaning out of what wreckage they can find: In the lovely closing scene, Hope and Walter say a makeshift Kaddish for all that has been lost.

“This Must Be The Place” by Anna Winger (320 pages, Riverhead, $24.95)