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…