Interview: Johanna Adorjan

A journalist who has written a novel based on her grandparents' joint suicide of 20 years ago.

By Jessica Elgot, April 4, 2011
Johanna Adorján: "You can interpret the ending in different ways"

Johanna Adorján: "You can interpret the ending in different ways"

Johanna Adorján's grandfather survived Mauthausen concentration camp and her grandmother's parents were murdered by the Nazis in Budapest. Both grandparents fled Stalinism in Hungary and made a new life in Denmark. And then, one Sunday in 1991, they took their own lives using a cocktail of drugs; a suicide pact that meant one would never have to live without the other.

Their granddaughter has written a novel in an attempt to understand what happened that evening in their home in Charlottelund, Copenhagen. A journalist living in Berlin, where she is employed by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Adorján uses her investigative skills to explore their back story, interviewing their friends and retracing their steps through war-torn Europe.

Partly a fictionalised account of their last day, and partly a documentary of Adorján's trawl through her family history, An Exclusive Love is, she says, basically a love story:

"It's the end of the love story of two people who have grown old together.You can interpret the ending in different ways. Is the suicide a self-empowered, proud act? Was this an act of fear? My grandfather was dying and maybe my grandmother didn't want to be alone, or be a burden?"

Adorján conveys her grandparents' last hours with great tenderness, imagining, based on the police notes, her grandmother's meticulous cleaning, gardening and preparations to end her own and her husband Pista's lives. But there are moments in the novel when Adorján catches herself imposing on her characters. For instance, she describes her grandmother leaning against the sink regretfully, and backtracks quickly --- she knows her grandmother would not have allowed herself a moment of weakness. "I wanted to make it clear I have no idea how the last day was. If another member of my family had written this book, it could have been completely different. I tried not to intrude as much as possible. But it's a personal story so I'm in there as well."

On the plane, I suddenly realised everyone around me was Jewish

All this has led Adorján to reconnect with her Jewish roots, despite her grandparents' rejection of religion. "My grandparents decided not to look back, but to move on, to be Danish citizens - my grandmother was baptised. But it was impossible to get out of "the club". The more I did my research, the more Jewish they seemed.

"My background has always been a big question mark. I was brought up in Germany, my mother is Protestant and this was a very clear part of my identity. But the mysterious half of my family is Jewish so of course I had wild fantasies and romantic ideals about what that meant.

"I visited Israel for the first time and I was on the plane and suddenly realising all the people around me were Jewish, and it was so amazing. I'm not used to being around Jewish people. It might be a bit clichéd, but I always feel like we are family."

Before writing her book, Adorján admits Vera and Pista were "just my grandparents. My father allowed me to do this, which I think was a very brave act. After all, they are his parents. He was my first reader, and my aunt was my second. I wouldn't have published it without their support. While they are my family, this is only a book."

'An Exclusive Love' (translated by Anthea Bell) is published by Harvill Secker

Last updated: 10:35am, April 5 2011