Manja

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In a coinage which has achieved fame in the annals of internet film criticism, Onion AV columnist Nathan Rabin discussed "a character type I like to call The Manic Pixie Dream Girl": "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." Well, not solely in the minds of film writer-directors. We bookish folk must admit that Manic Pixie Dream Girls enjoy a parallel history in written fiction, from Leslie Burke in Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia to (it could be argued) Henry James's Daisy Miller. In both Paterson and James, as in MPDG films, the narrative focus is on the effects of these unorthodox, energetic girls on the male narrators, rather than on the inner lives of the girls themselves. In both cases, the girls cause the males to question their preconceived notions. And in both cases, of course, the girls must die, never to lose their effervescent, youthful energy; never to become mature women; never to threaten the fetishized memories kept inviolate by the men they leave behind.

Anna Gmeyner's 1938 novel Manja is a lesser-known example of the MPDG genre, and it really goes for broke. Rather than merely allowing its vibrant, imaginative young heroine to transform the emotional world of one mopey young man, it has her do it for four of them simultaneously: Karl, the son of Communist activists; Heini, child of educated leftists; Franz, son of a stupid, cruel thug who rises in the ranks of Nazi officialdom, and Harry, the half-Jewish child of a banker whose power is on the wane. The five children form the kind of predictably unpredictable band beloved of childhood fiction (the smart one! the cowardly one!), and yet I must say that Gmeyner pulls off their interactions with a certain amount of subtlety and interest. This interest dwells, not so much in the development of the individual characters, who are fairly transparent "types," but in their interactions and the ways in which the rise of Fascist power affects the group dynamic. In the interactions