‘The Dark Room’ by Rachel Seiffert

The stories of three ordinary Germans and how war – and World War II in particular – impacts on their lives forms the basis of Rachel Seiffert’s debut novel.

Born with a non-serious congenital condition – a missing muscle in his chest – Helmut is a boy who is sidelined by sport-playing schoolfriends and, as a young adult, is unable to join the German army at the outbreak of war. Instead, an embarrassment to his working-class, Nazi party member parents, Helmut stalks the streets as a photographer, documenting the slow depopulation of Berlin.

Lore is a young teenage girl given the responsibility of taking her siblings across a Germany decimated by war and zoned by the Allies. With parents arrested as senior members of the Nazi party, Lore needs to keep heads low and find a way from Bavaria to the northern port of Hamburg and the home of her grandmother.

The longest story is that of Micha who, in 1997, researches the role his beloved grandfather, Opa, played as a Waffen SS member stationed in a small Belorussian village. Alienating his family in the process, travelling alone to the village on three separate occasions, Micha becomes obsessed with the need to identify and face the truths of the past.

The Dark Room is a fascinating, if somewhat uneven, exploration of guilt, innocence, truth and morality. He never fires a shot, but how culpable is the patriotic Helmut? Micha meets Jozef in Belarus, a collaborator who did not believe the anti-Semitic propaganda even as he murdered Jews – it was simply ‘a lie that made sense.’ For him, 40 years later, there is no point where apologising can bring redemption, such is the gravity of his actions. In the strongest narrative, as Lore finally arrives with her siblings in an almost unrecognisable Hamburg, it is the grandmother who asks her young charges not to judge their parents. ‘They are good people. They did nothing wrong.’ Micha would strongly disagree with such a comment 40 years later.

Deceptively simple in style, The Dark Room is a provocative read that was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize – but which lost out to Peter Carey and True History of the Kelly Gang.

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‘The Keeper’

Enjoyable if slight bio of Bert Trautmann, a German POW on English soil who, against all odds, became a legendary sporting hero in England itself.

David Kross (The Reader, War Horse) is the lead as, with the help of local grocer Jack Friar (John Henshaw – Stan & Ollie, The Angels’ Share) and his daughter, Margaret (Freya Mavor – The Sense of an Ending, Sunshine on Leith), Trautmann gets time off from the post-war internment camp and becomes the goalkeeper for the local St Helens football club. Scouts soon arrive and, just three years after the end of the war, Trautmann is controversially signed by Manchester City.

It takes time to win the fans over – and Trautmann faced a great deal of abuse from opposing fans when travelling to other cities – but the famed 1956 Wembley FA Cup Final with Manchester City playing Birmingham City ensured that the German ‘keeper entered the annals of footballing history.

No risks are taken by director Marcus H Rossenmueller (Grave Decisions, The Colour of Mother-of-Pearl) in telling this straightforward story of a man who overcame public hostility to become a local hero (with more than a little help from his wife, Margaret).

Rating: 61%

‘Gilgamesh’ by Joan London

An acclaimed and award-winning short story writer, Joan London’s storytelling and spare, concise language comes to the fore in her first novel, published in 2001.

Two young teenage sisters, Edith and Frances, struggle to survive on a small, isolated farm in the south-west of Australia. Their father recently died, their mother drifts in and out of reality (or creates her own). It’s 1937 when, out of the blue, cousin Leopold appears along with Aram, his Armenian friend.

For the unworldly Edith, their arrival shakes the very foundations of her everyday. Conversation and laughter arrives in the decrepit shack the women call home. She is swept away as Aram tells his story of the Armenian massacre in 1915 and the murder of his parents, the orphanage in Aleppo, his homeland. But mythical tales of adventures are also told – including that of Gilgamesh, the legendary King of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia. It is his journey of mourning, a journey undertaken with his friend Enkedu, that resonates with Edith.

Two years later, with Europe on the brink of war, Edith sets off with her young son, Jim, to find the two men, with London her first stop.

Spanning continents and generations, Joan London’s Gilgamesh is a modern day exploration of the epic poem – or a quest as Edith follows her own journey in search of Aram, the father of her child. From London, it takes her to Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Syria before finally returning to Australia. On her way, she meets some extraordinarily strong women (particularly in Armenia) and dodgy men and, whilst occasionally Gilgamesh turns into something of an episodic soap opera, it’s a compelling tale.

Shortlisted for the 2002 Miles Franklin Award, Joan London and Gilgamesh lost out to Tim Winton and Dirt Music.

‘Never Look Away’

A rambling, occasionally insightful and thoughtful but ultimately superficial exploration of art and life, Werk Ohne Autor (Work Without Author, a much more appropriate title) follows artist Kurt Barnert (loosely based on Gerhard Richter) from his Dresden childhood at the end of World War II, the social realism of the GDR to free expression in the west via the Dusseldorf Academy.

Haunted by the loss of his beloved young aunt under the Nazis, frustrated by the artistic restrictions of the east, confused in 1960s West Germany under the tutelage of a modernist professor (a thinly veiled fictional Joseph Beuys) and a bullying, interfering father-in-law, Barnert (Tom Schilling – Oh Boy, Crazy) plods on regardless. It’s all a bit of a slog (188 minutes!) that lacks the magic of director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s superb Oscar-winning The Lives of Others. But, having said that, Never Look Away remains readily watchable.

Rating: 54%

‘Red Joan’

An old-fashioned spy tale (based on a true story) as Judi Dench (Skyfall, Notes on a Scandal) is arrested for treason – some 50 years after the passing of nuclear secrets to the Soviets.

Set predominately in the 1940s (the young Dench is nicely played by Sophie Cookson – Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Huntsman: Winter’s War), solid performances and an intriguing insight into the oft-overlooked role women played in wartime fail to mask a somewhat dull, inert and dreary telling. Cambridge University was a hotbed for leftwing politics in the 30s and 40s, but a rare foray onto the silver screen by acclaimed stage director Trevor Nunn fails to bring one iota of spark to the intrigue.

Rating: 48%

‘Blooms of Darkness’ by Aharon Appelfeld

At the age of eight, with the German invasion of Romania, Aharon Appelfeld was deported with his father to a work camp in the Ukraine. His mother was killed in the invasion. Separated from his father, Appelfeld escaped and survived by his wits for more than two years.

Regarded until his death in 2018 as ‘fiction’s foremost chronicler of the Holocaust’ (Philip Roth), Appelfeld frequently revisited his own childhood experiences in his novels and short stories – and Blooms of Darkness is no different.

In an unnamed Ukrainian city, with Jews being randomly rounded up on a daily basis from the ghetto, 11 year-old Hugo is taken by his mother, at the dead of night, through the city sewers. Their destination is The Residence, home of childhood friend Marianna, who has agreed to hide the boy. At their separation, mother and child are destined never see each other again.

Hugo is to the spend the next two years essentially living in the closet in Marianna’s room, a room where by night she entertains her (mostly German military) clients. With his father and uncle having disappeared months earlier, school friends sent in hiding to the mountains and the random violence towards Jews by both Germans and Ukrainians, Hugo has already “learned not to ask” but “to listen instead to the silence between the words.” And so it is with his early days in The Residence, where Marianna keeps to her promise, feeding him and sheltering the boy from harm.

Hidden away, Hugo invents a world filled with people of his past – his mother and friends Anna and Otto in particular. But Marianna’s daytime world slowly replaces this memory and, over time, the boy is seduced by the, to him, sensual world of perfumes, brandy and sexuality.

The Russian victory in the east over the fleeing German army after nearly two years of hiding brings with it unexpected concerns – Marianna (and all the other women in the brothel) is labelled a collaborator. As they flee the city into the mountains, roles are reversed and Hugo finds himself the protector.

Blooms of Darkness is a deeply moving novel, a deeply individual perspective of the Holocaust through the eyes of a child, a perspective away from the death camps. Loss and loneliness remains writ large as events beyond the boy’s understanding unfold around him. Returning to his home at the end of the novel, Hugo discovers that much is familiar and little has changed. Except the haunting absence of its pre-war residents. His parents’ pharmacy is a grocery, their home occupied.

“The house stands where it always was. On the pleasant, broad balcony that looked onto the city hangs blue laundry. The windows on the side are bare, and people can be seen inside. The big chandelier in the living room still hangs from the ceiling. For a long time Hugo stands there and looks, and what he had felt upon arriving at the city centre now hits him with full force: the soul has fled from this precious place.”

Published in 2006 in Hebrew, Blooms of Darkness was translated by Jeffrey M. Green and was awarded the UK’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012.

‘The Garden Book’ by Brian Castro

The-Garden-Book_Brian-Castro-510x799Literary and obscurely poetic, Brian Castro’s meditation on loneliness, addiction, abuse and racism is a perverse and unappealing narrative.

Broken into four sections with events seen from the perspective of four people, The Garden Book is the story of poet Shuang He (Swan Hay) and her sad, isolated life in the shadows of the Dandenong Hills on the outskirts of Melbourne between the wars.

Darcy Damon (section one), her husband, is a good-looking opium addict: Swan Hay herself is a third generation Chinese-Australian and university graduate: Jasper Zhalin (section three) an American architect/pilot and lover of Swan: and finally Shih, their son, looking back at events and attempting to piece together the story some 50 years later.

It’s a frustrating read. Castro has created several captivating characters, allowing him to touch upon fascinating themes that are as relevant today as they were then. The often hidden history of the Chinese in Australia and the racism simmering below the surface of everyday life is exposed – not just towards Swan and her father, but also her Jewish friend, Ruth Black. But Castro’s language, whilst rich and archly beautiful, is impenetrable and exacting in its telling of a narrative.

A progressively angry and violent Damon, former chauffeur to the notorious local gangster, Squizzy Taylor, becomes increasingly remote as he builds a large house to cater for the burgeoning tourism of the local area. Swan, writing poetry on gum leaves, slips between sanity, depression and addiction (opium and/or alcohol), made worse by the cot death of their daughter. As war inches closer and Damon spends more and more time absent from the property as a reservist, into the narrative walks Jasper Zenlin. Charming, wealthy and sophisticated, he loves Swan and her poetry, eventually having the work published by an obscure printing house in Paris on the eve of the war. Swan is a sensation – but never knows it until post-war.

Victim of malicious gossip and accusations, Swan lives intensely and painfully in her mordant solitude. She loses all – Damon, her father, Jasper, her children, even, ultimately, herself.

As a précis, with more verve and action (plane crashes, opium-fuelled orgies, bigamy, spies), The Garden Book sounds like a regular literary thriller. But it falls into an academic exercise, an emotionless gymkhana of poetic verbosity. By the end, I hated it.

The Garden Book was shortlisted for the 2006 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Roger McDonald and The Ballad of Desmond Kale.

 

‘Empire of the Sun’ by J.G. Ballard

empiresunBased on his own childhood experiences, J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun is a compelling war torn story of deprivation and starvation as teenager Jim Graham looks to survive the Japanese Lunghao Airfield internment camp south of Shanghai.

A life of chauffeur-driven privilege in the International Settlement of the Chinese city is permanently changed by the Japanese entering the Second World War with the destruction of the American fleet at Pearl Harbour. That same morning, two Japanese warships scuttle American and British gunboats in dock and seize control of the Yangtze River. Confusion reigns: Jim loses contact with his parents and is left to fend for himself.

Roaming free for several months, Jim survives by breaking into the homes of wealthy Europeans, living off water from the soda syphons and cocktail biscuits. But a sense of exhaustion and fear sets in, resulting in his surrender to the Japanese.

Interned in Lunghao, Jim is exposed to the deprivation and cruelty of the Japanese guards. In his three years at the camp, he faces hunger, disease and death. But in his determination to survive, Jim ingratiates himself with prisoners and guards alike to gain food and gifts to later barter for food.

It’s in the detail that Ballard shines. The evocation of the teenage boy’s inner thoughts and confusion, his desperation to avoid slipping into a sense of uselessness along with a sexual awakening in his attraction to Mrs Jenkins: we see Jim grow. He admires the American prisoners and, strangely, identifies (in part) with the Japanese – the pilots in particular. It’s this dislocation of ‘loyalty’ (he has little respect for fellow Brits and the homeland he has never been too) and Jim’s dawning awareness that, as the end of the war approaches, it is likely safer in the camp. Resourceful and wily, having attached himself to other ‘survivors’ (Basie, Dr Ransome), Jim sees the danger that comes with the confusion of the end of the war – starving peasants, rogue Japanese, Chinese communists, bandit camp-survivors. An extraordinary number die after the final days of the war – so many that Jim wanders if World War Three has begun. The dead piled up by the side of roads, bloated corpses floating in the nearby irrigation canals, the sounds of Chinese peasants strangled by soldiers.

A new order is already beginning and the last vestiges of the Empire of the Sun, of the European Empires, of the Chinese Nationalism of Chiang Kai-shek are slowly dying out. Survivors battle survivors for food, booty, a passage to somewhere.

Ballard’s novel is an extraordinary achievement – a semi-fictionalisation of his own personal experiences (a teenage Ballard was interned in Lunghao with his parents and sister). From the pool parties of the International Settlement to deprivation and starvation, from the disregard of local Chinese workers to imprisonment and abuse, Ballard has created a haunting sense of time and place.

The Empire of the Sun was shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize but, much to the dismay of the literary world, lost out to Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.

‘The Great Fire’ by Shirley Hazzard

hazzardMuch lauded on its release, Shirley Hazzard’s dull The Great Fire is set immediately post-World War II.

It is ostensibly the story of Aldred Leith, a physically scarred British war hero who is sent to Japan (Nagasaki in particular) to research the impact of defeat on local and traditional culture. But, having spent considerable time in China, he’s also there to witness (for the British government) a China that is about to fall into the hands of Mao, when archaic iniquity was about to be swept away by the new juggernaut of the doctrinaire.

Whilst in Japan, Leith meets 17 year-old Helen, daughter of the crass and abrasive (Australian) camp commander and sister to Benedict, a youth dying from Friedreich’s ataxia. The three become close and, in spite of social barriers, Helen and Leith, 15 years her senior, fall in love.

Literary to the point of soporific, Hazzard’s writing is grave, old-fashioned and overly pretentious – Before dawn, as he slept, there had gushed out this emanation of an extreme (seppuku or Japanese ritual suicide). There is also the problem of the lack of any obvious storyline until the halfway point in the book. Up until then, The Great Fire is a series of vignettes as Leith travels backwards and forwards between Japan, China and Hong Kong. But colonialist through and through, The Great Fire introduces not local characters and experiences. Instead, the main talking point seems to be the standard of food served up at Government House in Hong Kong.

Twenty years in the writing, published in 2004, the pompous novel is littered with Aldreds, Bertrams, Benedicts with its language and sensibilities firmly entrenched in British mores of the 1940s. Hazzard herself was born in Sydney in 1931 into a diplomatic family and essentially left Australia by the time she was 16. Yet The Great Fire was awarded the 2004 Miles Franklin Award.

 

‘The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society’

guernsey_literary_and_potato_peel_pie_society_xlgIt may have an epic quality, so typical of British WWII period dramas, but the quirkily entitled The Guernsey & Potato Peel Pie Literary Society sadly fails to live up to expectations.

Overlong at 124 minutes, every passing moment is predictable – from the cloyingly annoying novelist Juliet Ashton (Lily James – Cinderella, Baby Driver) and her love affair with the fun but brash American, Glen Powell (Hidden Figures, The Expendables) through to her foray to Guernsey to find out more about the literary society and life under German occupation. And of course she meets her Heathcliff – the dark and broody Michiel Huisman (The Game of Thrones, The Age of Adaline).

It’s cosily well told (director Mike Newell – Four Weddings & a Funeral, Donnie Brasco) but a bit of passion and grubbiness would have been welcome (even the farm dirt looked as if it had been carefully applied).

Rating: 46%