It is 1945: the horrors of the war are subsiding, yet devastation, poverty and fear are far from over for a young mother and her child. The urgency to flee west is paramount; all Germans have to leave Stettin ... Helene and her son Peter having finally succeeded in boarding an overcrowded train, leave for Berlin. At a small transfer station, Peter is asked to wait for his mother on the platform... She never returns. Julia Franck's novel, BLINDNESS OF THE HEART (in German: DIE MITTAGSFRAU) could not have started more dramatically with this Prologue. The author, captivated by her own father's childhood experience and trauma, took the search for possible explanations for her grandmother's behaviour, as a starting point for her book. The resulting novel has turned into a fictional, wide-ranging psychological portrait of a complex and emotionally shattered young woman, who lived through two world wars and, for her not less dramatic, the time in between.
Franck's novel is a thought-provoking and, at times, unsettling and disturbing story of one person's deep love and loss, loneliness and rejection, responsibility and neglect, and the desperate, sometimes incomprehensible, will to survive. While primarily focusing on the portrayal of Helene, and her difficult relationships to her family and close surroundings, the author, nevertheless, reaches beyond the private and individual sphere into the depiction of sections of a society in chaos and upheaval. This applies especially to the Berlin's "Golden Twenties". Franck goes into some length in bringing to life the exuberant, careless and, with hindsight, totally naive behaviour of the bourgeois middle class. Any political events or references to changing economic conditions, that give the reader a sense of passing time, are only hinted at obliquely. In her description of individuals and scenarios, the author doesn't shy away from a certain amount of stereotyping. For her, Helene remains the silent observer as she feels increasingly alienated and retreats more and more into herself. Until she meets her great love, Carl, but even in this relationship one can detect certain clichés. While their happiness takes on the shape of a fairytale, the reader knows full well, given the events recounted upfront in the Prologue that some drama will destroy whatever hope Helene had for a happier life...
Why does Helene stand out among the many young women of that time? From her early childhood she had learned that she was different: Walking around town with her father, everybody greeted them, commenting on the girl's pretty blond complexion; when accompanying her mother, the stunningly beautiful dark haired Selma, they were shunned. Selma was treated as a foreigner who one wanted to avoid at all cost. Reality was difficult and Helene didn't know how to formulate her burning questions about the two religions, her parents' deep affection for each other, or her mother's growing remoteness. Instead she retreated into silence, totally rejected by her mother and, eventually, abandoned by her father; she clings closely to Martha, her older sister. "[Selma's] heart is blind from all the pain" explains Martha. Are there parallels to Helene's "heart of stone?
Reading BLINDNESS OF THE HEART as a psychological portrait of one young woman, half-Jewish, intelligent and beautiful, whose circumstances may not have been unique, but were by no means common, I could relate to and empathize with Franck's central character most of the time. As an illustration of the total disintegration of sectors of German society in the twenties and thirties, in particular, I found the novel lacking in depth and specifics. For a German reader, many place names, such as Bautzen, Stettin, Pirna (where Selma is taken for treatment), etc. have strong historical connotations. Bautzen, where Helene grew up, is synonymous with brutal imprisonment, whether during the Nazi regime or later, until the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Stettin (Szczecin), where Helene lived until her flight to the West was, during the Third Reich, a centre for forced labour and prison transports into nearby concentration camps. Pirna is known for its "Sanatorium" where thousands of inmates were murdered during the early 1940s. However, Franck gives no indication as to the realities surrounding Helene, nor that her heroine was to any degree aware of such realities.
BLINDNESS OF THE HEART is Julia Franck's fourth novel and winner of the German Bookprize 2007. It is her first, though, to be translated into English and by the outstanding Anthea Bell. Frank's language is somewhat unusual, not only has it a touch of the old fashioned stories from the Eastern regions of Germany, it is at times, and in contrast with the event described, poetic in its choice of words and expressions. The complete absence of any punctuation in direct speech, is unusual, yet eventually, it makes the text flow and creates immediacy beyond speech. [Friederike Knabe]