#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews THE BLIND SIDE OF THE HEART, BACK TO BACK and WEST by Julia Franck

As is often the way with the translations of multiple novels by the same author, these three novels by Julia Franck were not published in the order she had written them in German. It must be confusing for authors when this happens. Each time one of her novels was published in English, Julia was invited to the UK to launch it, in the case of West ten years after she’d written it. However, I’m not complaining, because at each launch I was lucky enough to interview Julia and her translator Anthea Bell. Re-reading these novels in 2019 for The German Riveter, ten years since the English publication of The Blind Side of The Heart, I can tell you unreservedly that they are as powerful as ever. The sadness is that Anthea, who helped make these novels the success they are in English, is no longer with us.

Julia Franck was born in East Berlin in 1970. When she was eight she and her family escaped to West Berlin, to where, after several major city and country changes, she returned and still lives today. She published her first novel in German in 1997, but it was her fourth novel Die Mittagsfrau (‘The Blind Side of the Heart’) that won her the German Book Prize in 2007 and catapulted her to literary stardom, not just in Germany, but, unusually for a living German writer, internationally too.

With her dark, claustrophobic novels and short stories, depicting troubled German families struggling through the twentieth century, she hit the Vergangenheitsbewältigungzeitgeist (look it up!), drawing on aspects of her own family’s history of divisions, conflicts and strong personalities. Die Mittagsfrau, partly the story of Julia’s own father, also abandoned as a child, covers the First World War to the 1950s; Rücken an Rücken (‘Back to Back’) is about twins – like Julia herself – growing up under communism in a divided Germany in the 1950s and 1960s. The artist mother figure is based on her grandmother, the sculptor Ingeborg Hunzinger. Lagerfeuer (‘West’, which was also made into a film) takes place in a refugee camp in the 1970s – where Julia herself spent time as a child – and is about a group of East Germans who flee East Berlin for the West. Stories of loss, abuse and abandonment; of unhappy siblings, women and men, and of the dark skies of war and ideologies, might not lift the spirit, but what does is Julia Franck’s emotional warmth, psychological insight and the great beauty and lyrical restraint of her writing.

Although they amount to only a fraction of Julia Franck’s twenty-five-year literary output, these three novels in English form a distinctive and impressive body of work.

The Blind Side of the Heart is a family saga and begins dramatically in 1945 with Helene deserting her young son Peter at a railway station. The novel then traces her story – and possible motivation for abandoning him – back in time over several decades, locations and two world wars. Helene and her sister, Martha, grow up in rural Germany with a Jewish mother, who later ends up in an asylum, and a father who fights in the First World War and returns to die, utterly traumatised. The sisters move to ‘vermilion-lipped’ 1920s Berlin, find pleasure and love – then tragedy. After her fiancé Carl is killed, Helene becomes increasingly apathetic and withdraws. She drifts into an unhappy marriage with an antisemitic engineer called Wilhelm, who humiliates her verbally and physically and wants to help create an Aryan nation and motorways for the Third Reich. They have a son:

‘When little Peter cried at night and Helene got up to take him into bed with her, Wilhelm said, with his back turned to her: … Go and sit in the kitchen if you must feed him. A working man needs his sleep. Helene obeyed his order. She sat in the cold kitchen with her baby and fed him there until he went to sleep … After two hours she slipped into the bedroom, exhausted.’

Julia Franck has been criticised for depicting mothers as cold and unloving. Helene deserts her needy son and in Back to Back, the artist-mother of Thomas and Ella, Käthe, is so selfish and cruel that at one point the twins, desperate for her attention, escape in a boat in order to scare her, returning three days later, half dead, to discover that she hasn’t even noticed their absence. Back to Back is a tough read, confronting the harsh realities of child neglect, rape, betrayal and blind ideology (it’s set in the heyday of GDR communism). Thomas and Ella are close, both sensitive and intelligent, but cannot escape the relentless knocks of their childhood. On her sixteenth birthday, Käthe gives the anorexic Ella a terrible gift: a mountain of raw sugar that she is forced to eat. Gentle poetry-loving Thomas is later forced by his mother to work in a quarry, announcing that, ‘Those who want to change society had better begin with their own children.’

Helene and Käthe are cold – although the men in these novels are not much kinder – but they weren’t always that way. What Julia Franck depicts is how society, politics and tragedy have driven them to this. These women, both Jewish, have suffered and been victims. Käthe had escaped Nazi Germany for Italy and returned at the end of the Second World War – she believes – to a better Germany and to create art glorifying socialism.

Everyone is trapped in Julia Franck’s novels, including in their political systems; they are unable to escape and desperate for love. Posing nude for one of his mother’s sculptures,

‘Thomas wanted to turn away, but he couldn’t. There it was again, the noose round his neck, the noose round his legs, the gleam in her eyes. He needed a pair of scissors to cut himself free.’

Finally in this trilogy of novels, we have West, set in divided 1970s Germany. The novel has four interconnected, first-person narrators, starting with the beautiful scientist Nelly Senff, leaving East Berlin in dramatic circumstances with her two children to escape Stasi scrutiny after the suicide of the children’s father. Her desire for a new life in the West is put on hold as she is forced to remain in a refugee processing centre situated between East and West Berlin. There she meets the Polish cellist Krystyna, who is trying to get to West Germany to find treatment for her sick brother; the CIA interrogator John Bird, who vets the refugees in the camp for Stasi infiltrators; and the actor and dissident Hans Pischke, just released from an East German prison. Circumstances in the camp are tough. They live at close quarters; the daily queues, meagre food rations and camp bureaucracy are exhausting; they are suspicious of one another, paranoid about possible spies operating among them, and they quickly realise that they cannot easily leave their past lives behind them. Once again, the intensity of this novel is ramped up high when we remember that Julia Franck and her family spent time in a similar camp when they left East Berlin in the 1970s.

For me, more than any writer of her generation, Julia Franck grants us powerful emotional and psychological entry into the private lives making up Germany’s public history. Reading these three novels again, especially now, thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I can only hope that Julia Franck has herself found peace and happiness and come to terms with her family’s past. I look forward to asking her in person when she comes to the UK to launch this magazine.

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith


Written by Julia Franck

Translated by Anthea Bell

Published by Harvill Secker (2009, 2013, 2014)

Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.

Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.

Rosie Goldsmith is Director of the European Literature Network. She was a BBC senior broadcaster for 20 years and is today an arts journalist, presenter, linguist, and with Max Easterman a media trainer for ‘Sounds Right’.

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Category: The German RiveterReviewsThe RiveterNovember 2019 - The German Riveter


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