WINNER OF THE 2021 ETHEL WILSON FICTION PRIZE
Inspired by Petra Kelly, the original Green Party leader and political activist who fought for the planet in 1980s Germany, Shaena Lambert brings us a captivating new novel about a woman who changed history and transformed environmental politics--and who, like many history-changing women, has been largely erased. Award-winning novelist Madeleine Thien calls Petra "a masterpiece--a fierce, humane and powerful novel for our times."
January, 1980. At the height of the Cold War, Petra Kelly inspires hundreds of thousands to take to the streets to protest the placement of nuclear missiles on West German soil--including a NATO general named Emil Gerhardt, who shocks the establishment by converting to the cause. Petra and her general not only vault to fame as the stars of the Green Party, but they also fall in love. Then Manfred Schwartz, an ex-lover, urges Petra to draw back the curtain on Emil's war record, and they enter a world both complicated and threatening.
Told by Manfred Schwartz, from his place in a present world even more beset by existential threats, Petra is an exploration of love, jealousy, and the power of social change. A woman capable of founding a new and world-changing politics and taking on two superpowers, Petra still must grapple with her own complex nature and a singular and fatal love.
About the author
SHAENA LAMBERT’s stories have appeared in a number of magazines, including The Walrus, and have been chosen three years running for Best Canadian Stories. Her first book of stories, The Falling Woman, was a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year and her first novel, Radiance, was a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Award and the Ethel Wilson Prize. She has been a fiction mentor with Humber College and The Writer's Studio of Simon Fraser University. She lives in Vancouver, B.C., with her family.
- Winner, BC Book Prize's Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize
Excerpt: Petra (by (author) Shaena Lambert)
Petra was soaking in the bath, reading the newspaper, when she called out from the bathroom: “Manfred! You simply won’t believe it!”
This was at the farmhouse, our hub for political organizing, thirty kilometres southwest of Bonn. The house was just outside a village whose name was never important to us. Picture a few desultory cows. A pile of tires in the field next door, unmoved for the five years we occupied the space. We were here for the cheap rent and the large kitchen under heavy blackened beams. The thick walls smelled of yeast and were cool even in the height of summer. We organized, talked, yelled sometimes; the bedrooms were often covered in mattresses for the itinerant activists who came and went as we built our movement.
I was bent over my cast-iron skillet like an old grandmother in a fairy tale, cooking a lamb stew. I’d browned the cubes of meat, adding wine, then stock and vegetables, scraping the good bits from the bottom. A piece of mushroom had found its way into my beard. When Petra called, I glanced up to see frost on the window. It looked like a towered city capped by blazing stars.
That city of frost has stayed with me long after other memories have died. Ice is important to this story. Petra, when she finally decided to flee, would flee to a land of ice. But in my memory it is mixed with another image: that night I wore an apron that Katrina (ex-girlfriend) had left behind when she stormed from the house, banging the walls, kicking the door with her big black boots. It showed a jovial chef brandishing a barbeque fork on which was affixed a beaded bratwurst sausage. He himself wore an apron with another chef also brandishing a bratwurst, and so on and so on, the chefs and their sausages becoming tinier and tinier, to infinity.
January 1980. Exactly two months after the announcement that rocked Europe. NATO planned to station intermediate-range nuclear missiles in West Germany. An ultimatum to the East, to Russia and its satellite states: remove your own nuclear missiles, the SS-20s, from East Germany, or in less than three years we roll ours in. A faceoff across the Iron Curtain; the United States spoke of fighting a “limited nuclear war” in Europe; everyone was afraid for the state of the world. As now, it was hard to think about the future without feeling a profound sense of Total Despair. These nuclear weapons were like sick boxes of death, each one full of a firepower that could destroy the world a hundred times over. The esteemed Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set its nuclear clock two minutes closer to midnight.
But at the centre of this dangerous world, our little band of sisters and brothers—led by the charismatic Petra Kelly—had a counterplan. It focused on the new political party we were building.
The stew was bubbling. I stirred in a bit more broth, and then picked my way through the many shoes in the hallway to the bathroom.
I should say that Petra and I hadn’t been lovers for over a year. This wasn’t my choice, and I still had hopes. In the last year, the Irish trade unionist had fallen away (too possessive), and the Hamburg artist had been tasted and dismissed (his art was minimalist, but he was a cluttered mess of needs and recriminations), and it was me, Manfred Schwartz, pushing open the bathroom door. Petra shook the newspaper at me. The pads of her fingers had softened from the water. Her short, wet hair lay flat against her face.
“Just listen to what this NATO general has done!”
Gone from her face was what I thought of as her scissors look—pinched and pale, stripped of humour. She started to hand me the newspaper, then grabbed it back and read out loud: “Commander of the 12th Panzer Division of the Bundeswehr!”
The gist was this: at a much-publicized Rifle Club banquet in Marbach the night before, a NATO general had made a scene. “A black-tie event! You can imagine! The women must have all been in long gloves, gowns covered in sequins. But here—listen. There’s a tradition in the club of bringing a massive roasted pig into the hall, a Spanferkel on a platter, with an apple in its mouth, while the military band strikes up a ceremonial march. Well, the military band chose to play the ‘Badenweiler Marsch.’”
She looked at me pointedly, and yes, I understood. This was Hitler’s march, played whenever he entered a public rally. This fact was well known to us, and it underlined, without further words, how fused the present Bonn elite was to the old system— ancient Nazis recycled and turned into judges and politicians. For non-Germans it might have been possible to listen to the “Badenweiler Marsch,” with its whistles of flutes and piccolos followed by the three distinctive horns, and not hear the darker resonance of Nazism, but not for people of my age, children of the Nazi generation.
Petra shook the paper straight and continued to read: “No sooner had the band struck up the tune, then General Emil Gerhardt, Commander, etcetera, etcetera, pushed back his chair, crossed the room and tapped the conductor on the shoulder. ‘I would prefer it,’ said the general, ‘if that particular march was not played. Neither here nor on any occasion.’”
I could picture it: the banqueting generals surrounded by their jewelled wives, the room fat with satisfaction; two men holding aloft the pig, basted in dark beer and with an apple in its mouth, a display of headcheese, pomegranates and roasted peaches around its haunches and cloven feet. A yelp of appreciation bursting from the grey beards in the room, and then this general requesting the conductor’s attention, while he glares in surprise and keeps waving his baton, and the tuba and the bassoonist begin, with mounting discord, to lose control of the music, until at last the whole thing founders with a final bleat of the trumpets. “I say,” says the general, “would it be possible for you to play another song?”
Petra dropped the paper on the floor and stood, sloshing water. “Pass me a towel, Manfred. I’m going to write him a letter.” She was dripping; little breasts so pretty, hip bones framing the dark patch of hair.
“No, you are not! That’s ridiculous.”
I handed her the towel and she began to dry herself vigorously. “He could be an important ally.”
“Yes, is that so? You know the mind of this general already?”
“I know he can’t help us, if that’s what you mean.”
I went back to the kitchen, where the stew had cooked down too much. Bits of potato and lamb were stuck to the frying pan. I poured in some wine, but the whole thing now had a slight burnt flavour.
Petra came in towelling her hair and wearing her customary loose pink sweatpants and a T-shirt—SWORDS INTO PLOUGHSHARES. She tossed the towel onto the back of a chair, went to her room and came back with a couple of postcards, one of Rosa Luxemburg, the other an innocuous vision of the Rhine in springtime. She chose the latter, sat down and scribbled quickly, then read aloud: “Dear General Gerhardt, I heard of your act of conscientious objection to call attention to Hitler’s odious march. Well done! If you have other values of this sort, come! Be part of our movement! Join the Green Party of West Germany! What do you think?”
I placed a bowl of stew in front of her. “It got burnt,” I said.
“It smells good.”
As I handed her a spoon, she took hold of my hand and kissed the back of it. “We need everyone,” she said.
“We must believe in human goodness—isn’t that our job, as people on this earth?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You’re angry with me,” she said.
“Why would I be?”
She was silent, chewing a piece of meat. “We need more allies from the centre.”
“A NATO general? Is that the centre?”
“And what? You will write him a postcard and tame him? Gentle the general?”
Watch out, I wanted to say. He’s old enough to be your father. She had a father thing; it was well known. She and I even occasionally laughed about it: her proclivity for older men. Her father had disappeared when she was five, without a word or note. He left her with a father-shaped gap in her chest, a place where the wind blew in, and a Pez container he’d bargained for in the American sector, shaped like Mickey Mouse.
Watch out for fathers, I wanted to say. But I didn’t.
2. Strangers from Another Time
This was West Germany, 1980. In other words, you couldn’t throw a stone on any university campus without hitting students who felt like they were carrying the ghosts of Auschwitz on their backs. And the silence of our parents’ generation, up on our backs, alongside the ghosts. They handed us their abominations without a word, in homes soaked with the good smells of apple pie cooling on the windowsills, happy times in front of the fire. They just forgot to mention the piles of bones, the whitened corpses buried in the backyard behind the trees, and we, detectives and prosecutors, had to dig them up ourselves.
What’s this, Daddy? Holding out a collarbone, a breastbone. I found it behind the shed.
A metaphor. But it felt like this, just under the skin of our daily lives.
At the Freie Universität Berlin in the late sixties, my friends and I had spent hours in mental agony: Who were these people, our parents? We knew them intimately and yet we feared them, and we distrusted ourselves, because we were their offspring.
But for Petra Kelly it was different. She’d moved to the States when she was twelve, after her mother married Commander Kelly, a US soldier, and stayed there until her mid-twenties. This long sojourn away protected her from the self-disgust. She was from the land of Coca-Cola, had campaigned for Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey and had marched on Washington for civil rights.
These things made her clean, made her attractive to our movement.
She didn’t have a Marxist bone in her body, and the politics of the sixty-eighters—the ardent politicized students of Germany, with our fury at the duplicity of our parents—was quite foreign to her.
We are all interconnected. This was what she loved to say, loved to think. And she’d quote from Gregory Bateson: “What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all four of them to me?”
As for the use of force, she opposed it utterly, because (I hear her voice speaking) we all have a core of goodness in us. This is what she thought. Even the most unhallowed criminals. Even the man who sits in the pit of the missile silo with his finger flexed on the button. My Marxist self would take umbrage at her belief in human goodness. But him? Petra would say. Why, he’s just a child following orders!
And what about the man who gives the orders? I would ask her. And the man who gives the orders to the man who gives the orders? There they were, lined up like the chefs on my apron, one inside the other, and yes, according to Petra, they were all interconnected, and all redeemable.
The only real evil in this world came from reducing a person to the status of evil. That was what Petra Kelly thought.
A finalist for the Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction
A Boston Review Summer Book Guide Selection
One of CBC's "Best Canadian Fiction of 2020"
One of the Nobel Women's Inidiative "Best Global Feminist Reads of 2020"
“As a work of historical fiction, Petra brings Kelly herself—and the radical green utopias she advocated—to the fore in a way that no biography or work of scholarship yet has.”
—The Boston Review
“Petra is a masterpiece—a fierce, humane and powerful novel for our times. Shaena Lambert brings to life the nearly forgotten revolutionary, Petra Kelly, and the circle of activists who transformed environmental and global politics. Petra, the story of generations reckoning with history, sex, the land, guilt, and our troubled future, is at every moment personal and political. What does it mean to remake not only the world but one another, what if our inner morality is riddled with falsehoods, why do we harm in the name of love? Spellbinding and shattering, Petra is a tour de force—a haunting and a courageous awakening.” —Madeleine Thien, Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing
“This is a moving psychological portrait . . . a murder mystery and a keenly persuasive psychological portrayal of the often-acrimonious inner workings of protest and electoral politics. Lambert’s handling of these disparate elements is unified by her lapidary prose and her wise, compassionate portrayal of her characters’ human fallibility and complexity. It will appeal both to the general reader and to anyone who has ever been involved in movements for peace, justice and environmental sanity. Highly recommended.” —The Vancouver Sun
"Award-winning Vancouver author Shaena Lambert’s most recent offering distinguishes her as one of Canada’s most thoughtful current writers." —Winnipeg Free Press
“Combining the planetary sweep of Kelly’s political vision with an intimate lens into her ill-fated personal life, Lambert forges a captivating fictional account of an eco-revolutionary’s rise and eventual fall. . . . While these are weighty themes, what distinguishes Lambert’s writing is her compassion for her characters. At its core, Petra is a very human story about love and betrayal.” —Broadview Magazine
“Petra by Shaena Lambert is a miracle of a novel, fully imagined and exquisitely written. Petra Kelly herself is incandescent on its pages, as she was in the world. I read her story with deep appreciation for the light it casts on the global fix we’re in.” —Joan Thomas, Governor General’s Literary Award-winning author of Five Wives
"The characters are absolutely alive, the politics complex and subtle, yet so heartfelt and vital, and, because of that, current. It was one of those books that kept me up in the night, and made me eager to return to it—not a lot of fiction does that for me these days.” —Bill Gaston, author of A Mariner’s Guide to Self Sabotage and Just Let Me Look at You
“Petra is a brilliantly realized and compelling novel. Shaena Lambert raises historical questions that haunt us all: What is our obligation to the past? And can we build a brighter future by cutting ourselves off from its dark shadow?” —Wayne Grady, author of Up From Freedom and Emancipation Day