BTBA 2011 First Look-Julia Franck’s The Blindness of the Heart

Best Translated Book Award 2011

Julia Franck~Germany

Wilhelm interrupted her, tapping the boy on the back of the neck.  Don’t cry,Peter.  And remember this, men are there to kill and women are there to heal their wounds.  Peter tilted his head back and looked up to his father.  Perhaps there was a smile? But no, his father’s gaze was serious.

Chilling, disturbing, compelling, brutal, sensual, imaginative, unromantic, epic, saga – all of these words describe The Blindness in the Heart.  This title was put on the longlist for Best Translated Book Award and with good reason: it is a novel in every sense of the word capturing the German Book Prize, listed as a finalist for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and selling over 800,000 copies in Germany alone.  In breadth, depth and execution, it is a historical novel spanning two World Wars and three generations in twentieth century Germany. 

Having stated this, it may imply that the novel would contain an extensive cast of characters, each making a mark on their generation.  In actuality, it covers the life of Helene Wurisch with an intimate, unflinching eye that examines her experience of love from family to lovers in all its promise and cruelty.  The historical setting of Nazi Germany may seem to lend itself to an obvious melodramatic tension, but Franck keeps its presence as menacing shadow  while chronicling the history itself only as it effects Helene.  As a novelist, Franck forgoes exploiting history but uses it simply as a one of the factors that effects the life of Helene and the decisions she makes.   The impact of this choices creates a harrowing tone that reads more like a historical account of a woman who lived a difficult life without ever really understanding what love is than a romanticized saga of war.

The novel opens and closes from the close third person point-of-view of Helene’s young son, Peter.  It introduces to the reader the fact that Helene abandons her eight year old son at a train station.  How could a mother do this, especially in a time of war?  As horrible as this act is, Franck lays out an account of what leads Helene to make this decision. Switching to the third person point-of-view of Helene, we come to understand her –  her choices and her history that lead her to the knowledge that she could never love Peter in the way that he needed to be loved.  Here we are dropped into the story of eight year old Helene and her childhood filled with obstacles. 

Her father, with whom she has the most normal relationship, leaves the family to go off to war only to return years later, crippled and lifeless.  Her mother, Selma, is mentally unstable and sadistic, often berating Helene.  Once Helene’s father leaves for war, Selma retreats more and more into her mental illness by sequestering herself in her bedroom which is filled with bird wings, fabrics, and all kinds of ‘hills and mounds of objects, collections of items for purposes both certain and uncertain.’ The only love Helene has left is that of her old sister, Martha.  Nine years Helene’s senior, Martha is a beautiful nurse that Helene idolizes.  She reads Byron to Helene and, after recognizing Helene’s unusual intelligence, teaches everything she learns through her nurse’s training.  Helene and Martha share a bed and it is soon after we learn this that Franck introduces Martha as Helene’s protector and perpetrator.  Because Helene experiences no love except for that of Martha, she willingly complies when Martha wants more from her:

Can you see under my skin too, little angel?  Do you know what’s underneath the ribs here?  The live lies here.

Sisterly knowledge.  Remember that, you’ll have to learn it all later.  And this is where the gall bladder is, right beside it, yes, there.  The word spleen was on Helene’s lips, but she didn’t want to say it, she just wanted to open her eyes, but Martha noticed and told her: Keep your eyes closed.

Helene felt Martha take her hand ad guide it up next to the rib, and finally still higher, up to her breast.

Although she kept her eyes tightly closed and couldn’t see, Helene noticed her own feelings and how hot her face was all of the sudden.  Martha was still guiding her hand, and Helene clearly felt the nipple and the firm, soft perfect curve of the breast.  Then down the valley below, where she felt a bone.

A little rib.

Martha didn’t answer, and now her hand was climbing the other hill.  Helene peered through her lashes, but Martha’s eyes weren’t on her any more, there were wandering aimlessly, blissfully, under her own half-closed lids, and Helene saw Martha’s lips opening slightly and moving.

Come here.

Martha’s voice was husky; with her other hand she drew Helene’s head towards her and pressed her own mouth on Helene’s.

And so begins the complicated relationship between Helene and Martha.  Loyal to each other throughout their lives, the love they share asks too much but when their is nothing else, they surrender to each other.  Even though Martha abuses Helene, Helene never rebels or hates, she merely accepts how love is given to her.  Once their father returns, he requires Martha’s full-time care and Helene runs the family print shop business while their mother refuses to come down from her room to see her husband.  He eventually dies and Martha and Helene move to Berlin to board with their wealthy, libertine Aunt Fanny.  Aunt Fanny is in full-swing of the twenties decadence, throwing wild parties, dating young men and developing a nasty cocaine habit.  Martha reunites with her lesbian married lover, Leontine, who is studying to become a doctor.  Helene is now in her late teens and pursuing her nursing degree.  She meets a young philosophy student, Carl, whom she falls in love with but is suddenly killed right before they are to be married. 

Helene trudges on, working in a pharmacy and going to school.  A few more years pass and Helene meets Wilhelm, a rich engineer work for the Third Reich who pursues her relentlessly.  Learning that she is a Jew, he changes her name to Alice and procures papers for her to prove that she is Aryan. Once he learns that she is not a virgin, he disowns and humiliates her.  Helene becomes pregnant with Peter.  She continues to live with Wilhelm who spends more and more weeks away from home, leaving Helene to support herself through her work at the hospital.  At first disowning the son, Wilhelm later comes home only to take him out for day excursions to bestow Peter with his fatherly wisdom.  Of course, Helene knows that with the rose of the Nazis, things will only get worse for her. She leaves Peter in search of Martha who she fears has been taken to a concentration camp. 

Incest, drug addiction, insanity, and the pervasive Nazism become the threads that knot Helene’s life together barely allowing love to survive.  Helene is a character raised to be used and despite her strong will to survive, her intelligence, history and circumstance do not allow her to flourish.  This is the haunting reality of The Blindness of the Heart.  Franck’s style is austere, stoic and at times, clinical, so that Helene becomes a witness to her own life, unable to fully engage in what life has to offer because from the beginning all it offered her was sorrow and hardship.  By the end, the reader empathizes with her choices even though it may be wrong.  For a novelist to sway a reader’s judgment of the character they present is an admirable and challenging task.  Franck doesn’t want us to feel sorry for Helene or to make excuses for her.  She only wants us to understand her. 

The only troublesome weakness in this novel are is the time shifts.  It is basically a linear time structure.  But in each chapter, the reader becomes so ensconced in the Helene of that time when they start to read the next chapter they are not sure if time has passed or not, only to discover she is three years older.  This can disorient the reader a bit when trying to discern what events are happening with her at what age, but it is not so distracting that it detracts from the believability of Helene’s character. 

What fails this novel is the cover.  How unfortunate a choice.  This cover makes it resemble a romantic read, a book for women who like historical fiction.  In my mind, marketing malfunction.  This is a sinister read that doesn’t shy away from taboo topics and as a matter of fact, addresses those topics in a way rarely done before and is a literary novel that deserves attention from all readers.  Yet, the cover panders to the female reader and in doing so, does a disservice to the novel itself.  Lesbianism, drugs, incest may not seem like new territory, but Franck does so without a hint of exploitation o sensationalism.  This is a serious novel with complex themes and messages.  The cover diminishes the substance that lies within. 

As to the translation, the language is straightforward.  Anthea Bell is a revered translator with impressive works to her credit and this will add to her accomplishments.  But because Franck’s style is direct, the translation might have been less challenging than other works contending for spots on the shortlist. 

Ultimately, The Blindness of the Heart is a gripping psychological novel that explores a woman’s search for freedom from restraints of history and family.  It imparts upon the reader a disturbing idea of the cost of that freedom and how truly precious it is. 

The Blindness of the Heart
By Julia Franck
Translated by Anthea Bell
Hardcover, 416 pp.

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