Following in the steps of the Prix Goncourt and the Booker, the German Book Prize was established in 2005 to promote contemporary German literature around the world. There have been 4 winners to date: 2 male, 2 female. Interestingly the two titles by female authors have been translated into English. The inaugural winner, Arno Geiger’s Es geht uns gut (We’re doing fine) has yet to be translated and, I suspect, it will be a while before the 2008 winner, Uwe Tellkamp’s 1000 pager Der Turm (The Tower) appears on British shelves. I, therefore, made a start on this prizelist with Julia Franck’s 2007 winning The Blind Side of the Heart. Why? Because it’s set in Berlin and, by now, you all know where I’m heading next week!
The first point to note is that the English title The Blind Side of the Heart bears no resemblance to the German, Die Mittagsfrau(Lady Midday). I’m glad of that because the passing reference to Lady Midday, a figure from Slavic mythology, is slightly baffling. The Blind Side of the Heart, on the other hand, is a recurring thematic refrain in a novel that concerns itself with those who have cut themselves off emotionally. None more so than Helene, who in the tumultuous days following World War 2, flees Berlin with her 7-year old son, only to abandon him on a railway station platform.
Such is the shocking conclusion of the prologue. The concern of the main body of the novel is the explanation of why and the success of the novel depends on whether Franck manages to turn Helene from the mother from hell into an understandable and sympathetic personage.
For the defence:
a) this pattern of emotional abandonment is one which Helene has experienced more than once in her life. Her own mother, her first fiance, her second husband. Abandonment that is sometimes cold and calculated, sometimes circumstantial – always damaging to Helene’s self-esteem. At one point Helene says: “something like me isn’t supposed to exist at all”.
b) the timeframe. Helene is unfortunate to live through both world wars. Defeated not only by the opposing armies but, particularly the second time around, by her own side. There’s hidden Jewish blood in her veins. Fortunately she finds a champion in Wilhelm, a Nazi, though one who is willing to take chances for the woman he loves until the wedding night throws up something completely unexpected and, thereafter, the downward spiral spirals ever downward …..
c) details in the epilogue which show prove that the mother’s heart isn’t quite so blind as at first appears.
For the prosecution:
a) should a child bear the blame for the circumstances of his conception?
b) should a mother ever inflict such emotional wounds on her offspring, even when she believes her actions are for the best?
c) details in the epilogue which show the length of the mother’s abandonment.
All of which points to deferring your final judgement until you’ve read the epilogue which, if you can believe this, is even more shocking than the prologue. Don’t, however, skip the middle section. Though not as intense as its frame (and, therefore, sometimes rambling), it nevertheless contains the drama of World War I, the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazis and the defeat of World War II. The primary focus being on the effect on the individual and the family. Yet the metaphorical level is ever present. The experiences of Helene and her family are also the traumas of Germany in the first half of the 2oth century. Read it and weep.
Berlin – 5 days and counting ……