“I was Interested in the Things I Couldn’t Find in the Archives” – Saskia Goldschmidt Chats About Her Work at Open Book
Saskia Goldschmidt was one of the esteemed international guests at the 2015 Open Book Festival in Cape Town recently.
Goldschmidt is a drama producer and theatre maker, and the author of Die hormoonfabriek, which was translated into Afrikaans by Daniel Hugo from the original Dutch version De hormoonfabriek (the book is also available in English as The Hormone Factory).
During the festival, Goldschmidt participated in a conversation with Hugo on the process of translation and presented a monologue entitled The Hormonologue. The author was also spotted at many panels on local literature – including the talk between Antjie Krog and Mathews Phosa on his poetry anthology, Chants of Freedom.
Amid all the festival hustle and bustle, we caught up with Goldschmidt to find out more about Die hormoonfabriek:
Die hormoonfabriek is a fictionalised account of the history of Organon – a Dutch pharmaceutical company that rose from an ordinary meat factory to one of the world’s leading producers of insulin, estrogen, testosterone and other types of hormones.
During her monologue at Open Book, Goldschmidt spoke about her research on the company and the twin brothers who ran the business which helped her to write a “fictional, emotional report of the people involved”. “I was so interested in the things I could not find in the archives,” she explained, elaborating on the sparse facts around the one brother’s rape trial.
This made Goldschmidt wonder: What if one brother wasn’t all bad, and the other brother wasn’t all good either? “I used these facts to start my research on the emotional drive of the characters.”
Die hormoonfabriek is largely set at the dawn of World War II at a time of great invention, economic success and political turmoil. Rapid invention was met with great suspicion by the Catholic Church, which is depicted by the frequent conversations between Goldschmidt’s Jewish protagonist Mordechai de Paauw (Motke for his friends) and the local priest.
“I like to go back to the times when people didn’t know all the things we know now and see the world through their eyes,” Goldschmidt said.
Die hormoonfabriek is told from the first-person perspective of Motke who, from the depths of his relentless deathbed, relives the sexual atrocities his younger self committed and all the wrong he did to his colleagues, female employees, spouses and his own brother in his pursuit of success and sexual pleasure. Is he a reliable narrator? Goldschmidt laughed, “Everybody tells the history from his own perspective.”
“I did choose him because I wanted to crawl into his mind,” she said. “I’m so fascinated with the conditions of the human mind and how they can live with the idea that they do repulsive things.” She continued, “As a human being I cannot imagine that I could do so much harm to a person and just go to bed and sleep!”
In her exploration of Motke’s psyche, Goldschmidt found a man with a big ego, someone who was very convinced of his own importance and the fact that he has done a tremendous amount of good for humankind. In his mind, this gave him the right to behave differently from less important people.
“Someone with such an ego and so focused on himself lacks a feeling of empathy and compassion,” Goldschmidt said, adding that from his perspective he was doing the factory girls a favour by sleeping with them.
Die hormoonfabriek is structured around Motke’s memories, which enabled the author not to reveal everything at the same time. “The form of the book depends on the story you want to tell. In this case I wanted to tell a story from a guy looking backwards,” Goldschmidt explained. “I always try in my writing to tickle the reader … to make them curious so they continue reading.
“It’s also in a way how the mind of the guy works,” she added. “So the form I’ve chosen is given through the person who is telling the story.”
Besides the issue of how a person who does bad things can live with his conscience, Goldschmidt also tackled the themes of the development of science, the merging of science and commerce (Organon was a pioneering company in this regard) and the tension between the two disciplines. In the book, Motke is impatient with the speed at which the pharmacologist Rafaël Levine is developing the different hormones and he decides to conduct experiments of his own – on the factory girls.
Goldschmidt said that the tension between science and commerce is still relevant today, as is the mantra that experimentation is “for the greater good”. This is something that was said a hundred years ago – why haven’t we learned anything from our past? “I am very interested in history and the fact that we make the same failures over and over again,” she said, explaining that sometimes themes are better recognised when they are set in a different time and place.
Although Motke’s treatment of women can only be seen though his eyes, Goldschmidt depicts his relationship with the different women in his life. Rivka is Motke’s first wife and true love, but through an abundance of hurt she loses her wit, trust and her big heart. “I wish she would have stayed much more energetic and lovable but she couldn’t,” Goldschmidt said.
The girls working in the factory are in a very different states of dependency on Motke, she explained. Roosje, for example, is a true victim whereas Bertha realises that the only way out of her lower social class position is to use her femininity.
Die hormoonfabriek turns the mythology of Cain and Abel on its head. “It’s a very mythical thing to have two brothers and the one symbolises all the good and the other symbolises all the bad,” Goldschmidt said. “I always mistrust this black and white thing. It’s the easiest thing to divide the world in black and white because it gives certainty, but it’s not real certainty because most people are gray”. She explained that history depicts one brother as good and the other as evil, but in the novel she not only switched their roles, she made each character both good and bad.
In the end, despite his rude language, lewd behaviour and questionable morals, Motke remains a likable character. “I’m glad you said that,” Goldschmidt laughed, “not everyone thinks that about him”. She emphasised that her role as a writer is not to give any judgement in the text. “I don’t think it’s interesting to read a book that gives judgement; I put a lot of questions and it’s the reader who should judge.”
Photographs from Open Book 2015:
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- Die hormoonfabriek by Saskia Goldschmidt, translated by Daniel Hugo
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