Saturday, March 16, 2013

Drop by Drop, History's Weight: Rachel Seiffert's THE DARK ROOM

Though billed as a novel, Rachel Seiffert's The Dark Room is in fact a triptych, each of its three stories examining a different era in Germany's recent history—the early years of WWII, the aftermath of defeat, and modern life—in order to unpack German culpability and guilt. The questions raised by the stories might by applied to any culture which has, at some point, participated in terrors: How does one assign culpability? Is it transmissible? Can it be forgiven? How guilty should any one person feel, regardless of their proximity to the events?

Seiffert provides no direct answers, only questions that lead to other questions. Even when it appears she's about to provide a kind of moral formula, she refuses to yield to any such statement. The book reminded me, in this, of Toni Morrison's Beloved, a novel that confronts American slavery only to conclude, in part, there is no way to successfully confront such horrors, no matter how fine our intentions.

This is not a multigenerational family novel; though we move through time, we're never allowed that kind of continuity. We never see what we might expect, a familiar face from a prior tale. Instead, the book is bound together by its themes and by geography, a kind of moral topography like something out of Dante. The cities send forth their young men, defend their border, receive the Allied bombs, empty of people, endure years of deprivation, and rebuild atop mounds of memories.

Photographs form a motif that binds the tales. "Helmut," the first story, tells of a physically handicapped boy who learns, via a generous employer, the trade of photography. From his childhood documentation of the comings and goings of trains he moves to the documentation of the life of his city, learning how to capture its beauty even as he uses the evidence of his photographs to track the departure of the city's residents. The story's one weakness, though I suppose the author doesn't see it this way, is Helmut's naiveté. I'm fine with the idea that he supports the Führer and spouts his pronouncements, but he fails to truly see how people are being treated even as he's photographing them. It's meant as irony, the camera framing what he sees but also distancing him from his subject, but the execution of the idea strains credulity.

Photographs appear in the second story, "Lore," when young Hannelore, a child of privilege who must guide her siblings to safety in postwar German, joins a crowd of people studying photos from the death camps. Here again, reality is both documented and problematized: Who are these people? Are the photos staged? What possible narrative could they support? The characters themselves, Lore and her family members as well as the young man who joins them in their journey, prompt similar questions: In what context are we to see them? What have they done? What do they deserve? Lore doesn't even understand the context of her own life, though she'll gain some knowledge of it by the end. (This story was adapted for a new film, which is what led me to Seiffert's book.)

After reading that long middle tale, it was hard for me to enter the new reality of the final story, "Micha." (A shifting narrative focus is what led me to stop reading the recent novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie; though well written and full of vivid characters, the shifts in perspective that created a structure of a linked series of short stories kept me at arms length, and I had to stop reading. Though no characters bind the tales in The Dark Room, Seiffert won me over, three thematically connected stories being more compelling for me than a dozen connected ones.) The third story here provided me with some resistance, Seiffert's drip-by-drip approach to narrative finally feeling too slow, but once the story gets going in earnest, I flew along (perhaps too quickly, the terse but frequent dialogue and repetitious movements of the character allowing for skimming). Micha (Michael) wants to find out whether his grandfather, a member of the Waffen-S.S., participated in atrocities. Here we enter the problem of modern Germany, surely divided between those who want to move on from the past and those who want to remind everyone about it—and Seiffert does not make the morality of the situations simple. In Belarus, in search of "the truth," Micha meets a local man and his wife with their own complex past. Now the camera surfaces again, but what is pictured and what cannot enter that picture bespeak the limits of both vision and forgiveness.

At times, the narrative would have benefited from a shift in pace or some stylistic variation. However, Seiffert's largely direct, moment-by-moment style suits these tales, as one of their subjects is the slow accumulation of detail and where those details lead us, whether we are witness, victim, participant . . . or reader.

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