Sunday, September 18, 2016

the last book I read

The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert.

In Germany before the war, there was a man who had a son. The son, Helmut, is born with a weakened right side which means he will be unlikely to be suitable for manual labour. Instead, the boy develops an interest in photography, with some help from a local man, Herr Gladigau, who owns a darkroom where Helmut can hone his skills.

Once war breaks out, Helmut, ineligible for army service, documents events in his native Berlin with his camera, with some help from Herr Gladigau, who recognises the young man's talent. Soon, though, Helmut realises he's documenting stuff that he's not totally comfortable about, like the brutal herding of Jews and gypsies into trucks to be transported away who knows where. Eventually it becomes clear that the war has taken a turn for the worse (from a German perspective anyway) and Berlin comes under serious Allied bombardment. Separated from his parents, Helmut takes refuge in the old darkroom and continues to document events while Berlin is bombarded and the Allies close in.

Cut to: 1945, and somewhere in Bavaria 12-year-old Lore is taking refuge in a farm with the rest of her family. It turns out Mutti and Vati are keen to keep a low profile as they were prominent local Nazis and don't want this to be widely known by the approaching Allies. Sure enough Mutti and Vati are captured and carted off to the interrogation and repentance facility, and Lore and her younger siblings are obliged to set out and trek across Germany to Hamburg to find their grandmother. It hardly needs to be said that this is a journey fraught with all manner of dangers; not only are the Allies keen to keep tabs on people and not have herds of unaccounted-for children roaming about the place, but the rule of law has broken down, everyone is starving, and what you might think of as normal societal norms don't really apply.

Not only that, but occupied Germany has been arbitrarily divided up into zones, each occupied by a different army, and while the British might send you on your way with no more than a cheery clip round the ear, stray into the Russian zone unawares and you could get shot. Sure enough, Lore's younger brother Jochen meets exactly this fate - that all the siblings don't meet a similar fate is largely down to their good fortune in meeting Thomas, a young German man also keen to get across Germany unmolested, for reasons of his own.

Lore, her siblings and Thomas strike up an uneasy alliance, and eventually they reach Hamburg and are reunited with grandma. Thomas prefers to keep a low profile, as he has his own reasons for avoiding scrutiny. Lore has to come to terms with the fact that the man who helped them and became their friend was not who he claimed to be.

Cut, slightly more jarringly, to: 1997, and Micha is a schoolteacher in Berlin who has recently become interested in his late grandfather's war activities. Grandfather, it turns out, was in the Waffen-SS and was imprisoned for 10 years or so after the war in a Russian prison camp. Micha becomes obsessed with finding out what his grandfather did during the war, particularly during his posting to modern-day Belarus. But does he really want to know? Certainly there were massacres of Jews in Belarus, just as there were in many other places. But could Micha's fondly-remembered grandfather have been involved? Does the fact that he was an affectionate grandfather (despite some dark rumblings of a drink problem) mean that he couldn't have been involved? Can you tell if someone has committed atrocities just by looking at them?

Armed with a grainy old photo of his grandfather, Micha travels to Belarus to see if anyone remembers the war, and his grandfather's part in it in particular. But how can he broach the subject with the locals, many of whom presumably had relatives who were killed by German forces? Hello, you don't know me, but I think my grandpa might have massacred your entire family; would you care to share any amusing anecdotes you can recall about him? And of course some of the Belarussians have their own murky pasts to conceal.

As with some other books in this series, The Dark Room raises the question: what is a novel? This one could arguably be more accurately described as three linked novellas, since there isn't the usual novelistic thing of some thread linking the stories together - Micha being Lore's grandson, or something like that, for instance. The three stories share the common backdrop of World War II, but that's about it.

Considered separately the three stories describe an upward curve, quality and compellingness-wise: I wasn't sure I saw the point of Helmut's story, and it's by far the shortest of the three, Lore's story is compelling just by virtue of the young-kids-in-jeopardy theme, but it's Micha's story that really resonates: there's a huge number of people in Germany, good, kind, considerate people in the main, who have direct blood ancestors who participated in genocidal killings on a massive scale only a couple of generations ago. How do you, as one of those people, deal with that? And how do you, as a novelist, explore the implications in a way that isn't trite and clich├ęd, given the amount of World War II-themed literature out there?

The inevitable lumpiness caused by the format aside, this is very good, managing to find a fairly fresh angle on some over-familiar events without being so oblique as to be incomprehensible. The bit right at the end where Micha and his girlfriend Mina have a baby daughter has faint echoes of the similar events at the end of Birdsong, but without the sense of the new life/new beginnings symbolism being trowelled on quite as thickly.

The Dark Room was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2001; I have now read four of that years' nominees (though not, as it happens, the winner) which, if the information here is still accurate, is some sort of personal record. [Actually, having had a look, I've read four of of the six for 1984 as well, including that year's winner, Hotel Du Lac.]