27 December 2007

Rachel Seiffert, The Dark Room, 2001

Comprised of three novella-length tales that focus on individual German experiences of the Second World War, there is little in any of these stories that could be considered uplifting, though one emerges from the other end feeling considerable sympathy towards the modern German mindset as it still comes to terms with the evils of the Final Solution that were hidden from many ordinary Germans living under the Third Reich.

The first tale is of Helmut, born physically disabled before the war but who uses his talent for photography to express and record his enthusiasm for German expansion, though while Berlin empties itself of people and falls under Allied bombing he never turns his keen eye inwards to see what has befallen the German people from within. The second tale is of Lore, a young German girl who, at the end of hostilities and the occupation of Germany by the British, American and Russian forces, is forced to guide her starving brothers and sisters on foot across a bleak and devastated Germany while their Nazi parents are seized by the Allies.

While these first two tales avoid the kind of truth only provided by hindsight and are told much as they would have been experienced, the third is of a different mettle, about the present-day search of Micha, a German teacher, obsessed with learning the truth about his much-loved grandfather’s activities while serving with the Waffen SS in Belorussia. While he himself experiences the onset of fatherhood with his Turkish girlfriend and learns what it is to uncover uncomfortable family truths that may best be left forgotten, this is the kind of tale which must have much resonance with the kind of experiences of today’s young Germans researching their family histories. It is an excellent tale, and makes this entire 2001 Booker Prize-shortlisted novel something of a dark and educational pleasure in itself.   PY

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