Leni Gruyten Pfeiffer
Leni Gruyten Pfeiffer (GREW-tehn PFI-fehr), a survivor and mystic. A classic Germanic blond, she is forty-eight years old at the time of the book’s main action. She has lived in the same apartment building all her life, in the one piece of property left after a wartime scandal erased her family’s wealth. She lives almost without resources, and her parents have been dead for years; she has few relatives except for her son Lev, who is currently in jail. She reacts to these troubles with serene indifference. Leni combines a sensual approach to life (fascination with bodily organs, as well as excretory functions) with Catholic mysticism. Her highly sensual nature transforms even the act of eating breakfast rolls into an erotic experience, yet she believes herself to be on intimate terms with the Virgin Mary (whom she sees nightly on her television screen). These mystical tendencies are sharpened in her teens by her close relationship with Sister Rahel. Through all of her troubles, Leni continues to paint her picture and fight off creditors, a lonely but serene woman, giving and taking love. When eviction is threatened, an impromptu committee of her friends pools forces to keep her where she is. This effort comes just in time, as she has a new love, a Turkish worker whose baby she is going to bear.
Sister Rahel (RAH-hehl), also called Haruspica (hah-REW-spih-kah), a nun in Leni’s boarding school. A brilliant woman of Jewish origin, Sister Rahel converted to Catholicism after a career as a biologist, physician, and philosopher. She is demoted to a combination cleaning woman and nurse after her teaching permit is suspended as a result of suspicions about her “mystical materialism.” In this role, she has earned her reputation as “excremental mystic” because of her skill at divining the health of boarding school girls from inspections of their stool. She teaches the ability to Leni, who becomes her disciple in this and other lessons on the miraculous nature of the body. Because of nervousness about Sister Rahel’s racial identity, the school finally moves her to a tiny attic closet, where she eventually dies, perhaps starved to death. Buried on cloister grounds without a gravestone, she returns to haunt the church...
(The entire section is 990 words.)
Leni Pfeiffer’s history ostensibly motivates “the Au.” to interview a vast number of other characters and organize a collection of life stories. The “heroine” is presented as an anomalous, puzzling figure, who raises several (ultimately unanswered) questions about herself. The plain facts of her case are easy to organize, but the underlying metaphysical questions about her innocence, romanticism, and realism are more difficult.
Leni’s sensuality is also the cause of her tainted moral reputation. An amateur pianist and artist, she also has a scatological interest which seems pornographic. She is reviled by strangers because of an apparent insensitivity. She refuses to mourn Alois’ death so she is said to be devoid of feeling.The truth, however, is that she is without remorse. She regrets nothing—especially not her love affair with the Russian Boris, a dangerous act that brings her vile accusations of whoredom.
Although she does not go to church, she believes in visions and visitations of the Virgin Mary. She does not enjoy sex at first, although her mind appears to be obsessed with sexual images and sensations. In wartime, she drives around the countryside, a vigorous blonde in a snappy car, bribing gardeners to take food to her lifelong friend, Sister Rahel. She dances while others are dying heroically. She goes to the cinema while bombs fall. She allows herself to be seduced by an unimpressive fellow and, when he dies a few days after their marriage, she holds his parents in contempt for...
(The entire section is 625 words.)