Very nearly the end of the month and this may be the only German book I get to finish. Great plans fail in the execution, don’t they? However, I’ve been watching the first series of Babylon Berlin on NowTV, so I feel immersed in that period, almost as if I’d participated in the Berlin Alexanderplatz readalong.
Julia Franck’s strangely entitled Die Mittagsfrau (The Noon Witch, apparently after a Slavic myth) has been translated as either The Blind Side of the Heart in the UK (translated by Anthea Bell) or The Blindness of the Heart in the US (although still with Anthea Bell as a translator). Like in her other novels, Franck does a fantastic job of blending the personal with the historical, showing how we are all shaped by the political and social forces of the times we live in… and yet are often unaware of them, so self-absorbed are we.
Helene and her sister Martha are mixed-race (their mother is Jewish and their father Aryan German) but barely aware of the fact. Their father dies as a result of his wounds in the First World War and their mother becomes increasingly more depressed and erratic, with severe hoarding instincts, proving utterly unable to take care of the girls. They both hope to study medicine, but end up working as nurses in Weimar Berlin. Their brief period of freedom, fun and partying soon comes to an end. Helene endures heartbreak and marriage to an unforgiving man who feels she owes him because he faked ‘pure descent’ papers for her so she could continue working under the Nazis. It is a picture of the average person in wartime Germany, the great complicit masses, who were not heroic, who were disturbed by what they see around them, yet unable to do or say anything for fear of endangering their own lives.
What I liked most about this book is that it’s not judgmental or preachy at all – it just shows the unbearable sadness of a life marked by great upheavals, and how all we can hope for is to survive, albeit with huge scars. After the initial fireworks in the opening (more about that in the next paragraph), the piling on of disappointments, traumas and horrors both great and small is done subtly, as gradually as it happens in real life.
It has been grim reading, so I struggled with it especially in the chapters depicting the sisters’ childhood, but it’s not relentlessly dark. There are some comic moments (although always with a dark undertone). For instance, when Brecht’s Threepenny Opera literally makes Helene throw up. Or Helene’s wedding night, with her new husband very keen to show off his sexual prowess. But it’s the small, perfectly observed scenes where private life is suddenly confronted with the bigger picture that are most memorable: hearing her son sing a taunting song about Jews that everyone at school was repeating; seeing her mother in a mental asylum and having to pretend she is not related to her; going mushroom hunting in the forest and realising that the horrible stench coming from the train that is standing on the tracks there is not bovine or pig dung.
Everyone who has read the book (or who refuses to read the book) will refer to the shocking prologue, in which a mother abandons her 7 year old son on a station platform. We know from the start that it is 1945, that they are Germans trying to evacuate from Stettin (now part of Poland), that the father has abandoned the family and that the mother is a nurse who has been raped by Soviet soldiers, but it takes the rest of the book to examine just how the heart of a young girl has hardened, how desperate and hopeless she feels and how she arrives at the conclusion that sending her son alone back to relatives in Germany is the best thing she can do for him. In a very poignant epilogue, we also see how things have turned out for the son and what lasting effect this has had on him.
I’ve had a heated debate with a Russian friend who condemns Marina Tsvetaeva for leaving her daughers in an orphanage for a while during the Moscow famine during the Civil War in Russia 1917-1920. Her younger daughter died and my friend argues that no mother should ever abandon her children, even if she thinks that is what’s best for them at the time. But I think it’s easy to be judgemental when you are not living through such extreme times. We’ll never know for sure how we would react if we were faced with similar desperate circumstances. I also abhor the double standard: men have often abandoned their families for far less reason, while women are vilified if they do it.
This is not to say that we should admire or like Helene. No one emerges happy and pristine from the messiness of life lived with far fewer choices than most of us can imagine having nowadays. It is a wonderful metaphor for Germany, but like all good books, it has a truly universal message. I think of those parents who reluctantly, with broken hearts and with their last desperate reserves of money, send their children abroad to escape horrible wars and persecution in their own homes, without knowing if they will ever end up in a safe place or if they will ever see them again…
11 thoughts on “#GermanLitMonth Julia Franck’s tale of parental abandonment”
I was thinking about buying this after my recent reread of ‘Rücken an Rücken’, a book I actually enjoyed more second time around (and another very unpleasant experience at times, just like this!).
I really like Julia Franck – there is something very visceral about her writing, which makes it hard to read at times, yet acutely, almost piercingly observed too, which makes it impossible to look away.
I’ve only read the one so far, but I would like to try more.
This one does sound powerful, Marina Sofia. And it’s true the times we live in impact us, whether we see it or don’t, so it’s interesting she explores that here. And the fact is, a lot of people do the things they think are the best things to do under circumstances, even if others might look askance (or worse). That’s why I like good character development, especially in novels like this one.
Wow. Sounds very dark, Marina. And I would agree with you and not your friend about Tsvetaeva – it’s easy to make a judgement when you aren’t in the middle of an extreme and appalling situation. We can never know how we would behave and who knows what actions might seem the right ones to take at the time.
This sounds so affecting, perhaps too disturbing at certain points. Am I right in thinking that Franck drew on some of her own family’s experiences as inspiration for this book?
I avoid books set in WWII, especially dealing with Germany and Jewish people. I have a stomach ache just reading this. My mother’s family is Jewish and her parents fled pogroms in 1907 in Russia-annexed East Poland.
But I would say that parents who knew they were doomed and sent their children to England or another country where they thought their Jewish children would be saved were not being immoral or caring. They were trying to save their children’s lives.
Even Dr. Ruth Westheimer was sent away by her parents who did not survive. And she did, never saw them again.
I don’t like parents separating from children, but if lives are at stake, that’s an exceptional case.
I’ve had this on my piles for ages. I must admit, I started it a few times and didn’t get further than the prologue. Sure, it’s easy to judge when you’re not in that situation but it triggered things in me, even though I wasn’t abandoned. Her earlier books are very good too.