Irreconcilable Differences

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Dutch writer tessa de Loo grew up thinking Germany was "a diabolical country, the land of evil." That was the consensus of her generation the Nazis had pillaged the Netherlands and the war wounds were fresh. Even half a century later, some anti-German sentiment lingers along with Germany's own legacy of collective guilt.

The Twins (Arcadia; 392 pages) is 53-year-old De Loo's attempt to dissect the countries' still prickly relationship. When it was published in her homeland in 1993 it won a clutch of awards and sold half a million copies. It came out in Germany two years later to critical acclaim, selling another 500,000 there. The novel, now translated into English, tells the moving tale of twins, separated at the age of six, who meet by chance as elderly women at a Belgian health resort and share their life stories. Born in Cologne in 1916, the two are split after their parents die: Anna is sent to their grandfather's farm in a poor, small-minded, Catholic village in Germany's south and treated like an unpaid servant, while tubercular Lotte is despatched to cultured relatives in the Netherlands and raised by a Stalinist who advises, "Never trust a Kraut." Lotte hides Jews in her family home and forages for food during the German occupation; Anna falls in love with a reluctant Viennese soldier, who is later forced to join the SS.

The Twins is about two women who carry their own hurts, their own losses, and somehow partly blame the other. But this is really Anna's story. After the war ends she is ostracized on a tram in the Hague when fellow passengers hear her speaking in German and she senses "what it would mean to be a German from now on e Not to be seen as an individual but as a specimen of a type." Not even her sister can see beyond that. Anna reaches out to salvage what's left of their relationship but Lotte recoils. "First, all of you people set fire to the world," says Lotte, "and on top of that you want us to go deeply into your motives."

Lotte has renounced her German origins and apparently wants Anna to pay for Germany's sins for taking away her Jewish love, her singing career and her trust in humanity. Lotte interrogates her: "Why did you do nothing?" Anna can only claim ignorance of the Holocaust and point to Hitler as the "long-awaited father figure" who had given the depressed country back its confidence.

Anna's answers may not always satisfy but perhaps that's not the point. De Loo doesn't seek to exonerate Germany but to tell the harrowing tale of war from two sides, to humanize history and add some ambiguity to the good-evil dichotomy. De Loo speaks with compassion about the futility of grudges, yet she seems to realize that some rifts may be irreconcilable. Forgiveness may not always be possible for many, the wounds of war are too deep for that but some degree of understanding is the first step toward healing.