BLINDNESS OF THE HEART
By Julia Franck
Grove Press, $24.95, 424 pages
There is no shortage of books, fiction and nonfiction, relating events occurring in Germany during the days before and during World War II. The atmosphere prevalent during that time and the cruelty and inhumanity of what went on are not unfamiliar even to readers who do not remember the time firsthand.
Julia Franck’s devastating, dark novel, “The Blindness of the Heart,” tells the story without graphic detail, using allusion instead. Her focus is on a woman who lived during those war-ravaged years.
Helene is a born victim. She submits to a mother who does not like her, “whose heart has gone blind, of whom Helene knew nothing much but the orders she gave and the thoughts that cut her off from the world”; a father who called her his “golden girl” but squelches her dream of studying and becoming a doctor; a husband who abuses her; and fate that never treats her kindly. Life happens to her.
As the story opens, World War II has come to an end, leaving the population of Germany impoverished, homeless and hungry; the Russians are arriving from the east, and the population is fleeing to the west. Helene abandons her 7-year-old son, Peter, at a railroad station.
The action switches to just before World War I to the provincial town of Bautzen, where Helene, her protective older sister Martha and their parents live a bourgeois life. Martha is a nurse at the local hospital. Ernst Ludwig Wursich owns a printing shop and adores his Jewish wife, Selma, known in town as “the foreign woman.” Selma is a spiteful, bad-tempered woman who collects everything from fruit pits to feathers, from old pots and pans to scarves with holes in them, for “[y]ou never knew when this or that might come in useful.” She scolds, she screams, she sobs; she is incapable of running her own household.
Ernst Ludwig joins the army in World War I. He promptly loses his leg in a “pitiful accident.” For years, he lives with pain that sometimes “was not white and shining any more but fluid, black, lightless lava. … He felt as if all his love, all his understanding of his existence, had been merely a courageous but vain rebellion against the pain. Nothing seemed pure and clear anymore; there was only pain.” When he returns home in 1920, Selma refuses to see him, and it is Helene, now a nurse like her sister, who takes care of him, cleaning his wound, bathing his body, feeding him. When he dies, the sisters go to Berlin to live with a cousin of their mother’s.
Cousin Fanny leads a hedonistic life of parties, nightclubs and lovers. She is happy to have her young relatives move into the apartment, and Martha soon becomes her confidante. Helene, grown into a beautiful young woman, feels unwanted and out of place.
She meets a gentle student who falls in love with her and awakens reciprocal feelings. When he dies just as they are about to announce their engagement, Helene is devastated; she “found herself in a dilemma … She didn’t want to think, she didn’t want to talk, she didn’t want to embrace another human being ever again. But she wanted to live on for Carl, not in order to survive him but to live for him. … How was it possible to live on without thought or language or human embraces? The crucial point was not to disturb the mechanism of life, which meant sleeping only as long as was absolutely necessary, eating only as much as was absolutely necessary, and it was a relief to Helene that her work in the hospital divided every day into visible, regular units.”
Time passes. An aggressive, nationalistic engineer involved in building the Autobahn persuades Helene to marry him. He obtains “Aryan” papers for her, then brutally rejects her when he discovers his blond bride is no longer a virgin. The unhappy marriage produces a son, Peter, whom Helene (now called Alice by her husband) deeply loves.
The war years bring deprivation, an absent husband, long hours at the hospital. It is in her work as a nurse that Helene finds a passion of sorts. The calls to her from the dying, the hands she holds, the bedpans she empties, the sores she soothes give her a deep sense of satisfaction and self-worth.
The reader learns that Martha has been taken to a labor camp, that Martha’s lesbian lover has disappeared, as has Cousin Fanny and that Selma has died in an insane asylum. Martha survives the war, but we never learn the circumstances of her survival nor what happened to Fanny. Perhaps readers are supposed to surmise the reality.
Helene’s fear is real, as is her despair. By the end of the war, she “had nothing more for [Peter], her words were all used up long ago, she had neither bread nor an hour’s time for him, there was nothing of her left for the child. Helene’s time meant relief for her patients, helping them to live a little longer with a little less pain.”
It is not only Selma whose heart is blind. Young Helene, who so yearned to make something of her life, ends up with blindness of the heart as well. And her abandoned son’s heart turns to stone when his mother re-enters his life.
“The Blindness of the Heart” is a dark tale, a mournful book filled with good writing (ably translated from the German by Anthea Bell) and excellent evocation of life among “ordinary” Germans during the first half of the 20th century.