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The Dark Room - Rachel Seiffert

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Author: Rachel Seiffert / Genre: Fiction

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      10.08.2010 16:17
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      Three thought provoking novellas about Nazi Germany

      'I think that there is no punishment for what I did. Not enough sadness, and no punishment.' (Josef Kolesnik, in 'The Dark Room')

      The Dark Room was the first novel by Rachel Seiffert, daughter of a German mother and Australian father, born in Oxford. I mention her heritage as it undoubtedly forms part of the motivation behind the book, which is about coming to terms with the legacy of the Nazis. It was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize and won a Betty Trask award the following year. Seiffert has since published a collection of short stories and another novel.

      In The Dark Room, Seiffert has set out to explore the questions left behind by Nazi Germany and she has done so by looking at events from the perspective of German people. Some may see the term 'ordinary Nazi's' as an oxymoron, but these are the people who Seiffert writes about in this book. It's a difficult subject and although the book was critically acclaimed it also caused some controversy. Split into three sections, each is given the name of a person;

      Helmut is born in Berlin, 1921. He has a disability which precludes him from joining the army and he feels ashamed of being unable to serve his country. He finds some solace in photography and begins to document Berlin during the war. What's interesting here is the way that the reader is encouraged to empathise with Helmut, despite the fact that he is a fully fledged supporter of Nazism. There's no big deal made of this, it's just part of his life and seen from his point of view, it's the normal way to be. We travel with him up until early 1945 which is when the next story begins.

      Lore is a twelve year old girl whose parents are Nazis. When her mother is taken captive by the Allies, she is forced to make a journey with her younger sister and three younger brothers, including a baby. Together they walk many miles across the devastated country to try and find their grandmother.

      Micha's story begins in 1997. He is a teacher who becomes increasingly preoccupied with what his grandfather did during the Nazi years.

      It was when reading Micha's story that I realised the three characters are not connected to each other in any way, other than that their stories have similar themes. I had thought of the possibility that Micha's grandparents would be Helmut and Lore, or that they would come into his story in some other way, but The Dark Room is basically three novellas. I wish I'd known this at the start as I felt disappointed and had to re-evaluate what I had read.

      Written in the third person and in the present tense, the writing style is simple, sombre and factual. It could be described as detached, but the main characters still get under the reader's skin. The first two sections in particular feel almost like watching a film as the writing provides very clear images. In the last section more space is given to thoughts and dialogue.

      The final section is the most complex. It's also my least favourite. Micha has trouble coming to terms with the idea that his beloved grandfather may have committed war crimes. He only has a vague idea of his grandfather's location during the war and decides to do some research to find out why he was imprisoned in Russia for several years afterwards. An elderly Belarussian character, Josef Kolesnik, tells Micha that the only members of the occupying forces who really stand out in his memory are those who did not join in the killing. "Someone else was always responsible", he says, when questioned about his own collaboration with the SS. It made me think about how I would react to the discovery that someone I knew and loved had committed terrible crimes. This is the section where the most searching questions are asked. Unfortunately I think the author flounders for answers, along with her main character, and I don't think she comes to many satifactory conclusions. Maybe because there aren't any.

      There is no doubt that ordinary German people suffered during the war, but Seiffert has been criticised for comparing their experiences with those of people who died in concentration camps. I don't think this is fair criticism, I believe her intention was simply to provide a snapshot of some people's lives during that period. Helmut and Lore may have been on 'the wrong side', but they still suffered. To say that the suffering of Lore and her siblings is eclipsed by that of Jewish children may be true, but it is beside the point. This book is not directly concerned with the holocaust, although war atrocities and concentration camps are mentioned, they are not the focus of the writing.

      Another criticism I've read is that the characters who support the regime are shown to have problems of their own, which in some way makes their support for Hitler understandable. I do agree that the idea that abused people become abusers has become something of a dodgy stereotype, but I don't think this is Seiffert's point. I do think Seiffert shows ordinary people, the fact that they have suffered in some way is merely part of their humanity. I wish it were otherwise, but I think well adjusted people are in the minority. Most people have problems of some sort or another, and many are easily persuaded to blame others for those problems and scapegoat minority groups.

      One criticism I would make is that while many stereotypes are challenged, others seem to be gone along with, particularly that of the Americans and British being 'good guys', while Russians are portrayed as brutal.

      I was interested to discover that the cover photograph on my copy was not posed as I had assumed, but taken in 1946 by the war photographer Tony Vaccarro. Entitled, 'The Return of the Defeated Soldier', it was taken in Frankfurt and shows a man leaning on his case on a low wall, presumably a German soldier on his way home.

      A book that presents Nazi supporters as anything other than evil monsters will certainly challenge many common assumptions, nonetheless they're not assumptions I hold myself, and I don't think most people who choose to read the book will hold them either. (That's not to say Nazi ideology is anything other than abhorrent.) On one level this is a book about the nature of evil, as Seiffert tries to grasp the reasons people commit crimes against humanity. She succeeds only in showing it to be a complex issue. Huge questions are raised in The Dark Room, many of them unanswerable. It's not as grim a read as might be expected; Lore's section, for example, felt almost like reading an adventure story. Themes of national identity, individual responsibilty, complicity, inherited guilt and forgiveness are explored. I thought it was at it's best in the first two sections where the stories were told simply and readers left to draw their own conclusions. I didn't find the soul searching of the final section anywhere near as gripping. Although an intelligent book, I don't think it delivers any profound insights. If it succeeded in answering the questions it raises, then instead of being a good read and a thought provoking piece of work, it would be truly remarkable.

      Product details (from Amazon):
      Paperback: 400 pages
      Publisher: Vintage; New edition edition (7 Feb 2002)
      Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.8 x 3 cm
      (priced £5.99 on Amazon at time of writing)

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        18.06.2007 16:42
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        A powerful book about the legacy ofthe nazis

        "So what did you do in the war granddad?"

        "I murdered innocent people"

        History can be a very difficult subject to study due too the cruelness of human beings. It is difficult to comprehend the need for power and the sheer disregard for human life when committing genocide and trying to eliminate a whole group of people. The Jewish pogroms, the Highland Clearances, the Russian Gulags, Pol Pot and the Khmir Rouge, and the ethnic cleansing in the former coroutines of Yugoslavia. The list is endless and unlikely to end as there will always be power mad dictators. Above them all there is Hitler's regime and the Holocaust. I have been to Auswitchz and read survivors testimonies but I still can not comprehend the sheer barbarity and the waste od human life due to the umber of people killed just because they did not fit into Hitler's twisted ideal of what an ideal German should be. Due to this it is difficult to see past the Nazis as cold blooded inhumane monsters. The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert challenges our perceptions of who the Nazis were.

        This powerful, thought provoking book is less a novel more a collection of three seemingly unlinked novellas exploring German attitudes to the Second World Wat, the Nazi regime and the Holocaust.

        The first story is set in Berlin before and during the Second World War. Helmut is born musing muscles in his chest and thus has a withered arm. Due to this he is not able to conscript in the German Army. Instead he becomes a photographer observing and documenting life in wartime Berlin.. I found this story the least emotionally involving as Helmut seems a little bit simple and although there are clues to the darker side of what was happening in Germany such as the exodus of people in trains and a snap shot of gypsies being herded up by soldiers Holocaust seems to affect him least out of the three main characters.

        This is followed by Hanna lore''s story. Lore is twelve year old when Germany surrenders and is taken over by the Allied Forces. Her parents have some rank in the Nazi party and are taken prisoner. Hannalore and her younger siblings are left to make their own way across Germany to hamburg where their grandmother lives. During this journey Lore is confronted by the sceptre of pictures of skeleton people, half living, half dead just flung in pits. This story is a graphic account of a country left in chaos and in parts I found it difficult to read as these were innocent children coping with the deprivations of war. They ma have been children of Nazis but they were children all the same.

        The third story is set in the present ad explores contemporary Germen attitudes to their very recent past. Micha is an ordinary German of my generation who has to face up to the possibilities his Opa (Grandfather) may have had a part in committing atrocities on the Eastern Front. It is interesting to note Micha's girlfriend Mina is of Turkish origin thus to a lesser extent exploring the changes in German society, Gast Arbetier, and multiculturalism in modern Germany. I found this story the most thought provoking as it is not just Micha's story but most German's s story now.

        The book was made more powerful to me by the style it was written in. It is told in the third person using very stark and simple language. In Helmut's story there is almost no dialogge at all just his actions. I think the style was effective as flowery language would jar with the subject matter and dilute it. I think a first person narrative would have been unsuitable as the characters are not characters, more people representing the ordinary German in different periods of the twentieth century.
        Rachel Seiffert is English born but is half German. The book was written as she wanted to explore the legacy of the Second World War due to her experiences at school where she was called a Nazi just because she has a German father. I found the book extremely thought provoking due to the implications and legacy of the Nazis on Germany. Yes it is unforgivable what the Nazis did. It sickens me just to think about it.Germany will never be able to forget its shameful past. However the Nazi party was made up of individuals and each of these individuals were someone's father, son, grandfather or husband. They were part of the war and committed atrocities but it is difficult for us to comprehend as we cannot understand what it was like living in a totalitarian state. We can not understand what it is like to live with those memories knowing you were a murderer or the possibility someone in your family could have been a murderer. World War Two only ended sixty two years ago thus there are still those who may have taken part in the atrociousness alongside the survivors of the concentration camps.r.

        The Dark Room is a book I read for a book group however I probably would have picked it myself. I can not say I enjoyed or even liked reading Dark Room however I did not dislike it. It is a book I am glad I read but found it difficult in places due to the subject matter. It is definitely not a book for reading on the beach. However I would recommend Dark Room if you want a thought provoking read that challenges your idea of who the Nazis were.

        I borrowed this from the library but you can get it on Amazon for £5.49

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          24.02.2002 08:02
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          I have to admit that I didn't approach this book with a good attitude. Not another bloody book about the War, I thought. If this year's Booker Prize judges short-list another war book, why I'll... Ahem, anyway... Rachel Seiffert is half German and half-Australian, she was bullied at school for being 'a Nazi' - rather unlikely seeing as she was born in Oxford in 1971. She wrote The Dark Room at Glasgow University, and now lives in Berlin. I put off reading this book for a long time. I was wrong to, because it's not what I expected at all. I've never read (almost) 400 pages quite so quickly - it's a real page-turner. Seiffert's writing carries the reader along at a brisk pace, using short, snappy sentences and lots of dialogue. For a Booker Prize nominee it's unusually readable. (There was no chance of me nodding off while reading this one!) But it's not really a novel though... The Dark Room consists of three novellas, showing how the second world war directly, or indirectly, affected three ordinary German people:- Helmut, who is a young man at the outbreak of the war; Lore who is a child at the end of it; and, from the present day, Micha who is trying to discover what part his grandfather played in the holocaust. HELMUT is the only child of poor parents in Berlin. He has a deformed arm which keeps him out of the clutches of the military, and as he grows up he becomes a bit of a trainspotter (they live near the railway station). When his father gets a job working in a photographer's shop, the owner, sympathetic to their family's plight, takes on Helmut as an apprentice, teaching him the art of photography. But when the war breaks out, going around taking photographs is suspicious behaviour. Then Berlin is bombed one night and...sorry, I can't say any more without going too far. LORE (Hannelore) is twelve, and her parents are members of the Nazi party. Bu
          t this is early 1945, the war is lost, and no amount of burning papers and hiding badges will preserve their freedom. So when the Americans arrive, Lore's mother asks her to take her younger brothers and sister (including baby Peter) to their grandmother's house in Hamburg. But the trains aren't running, as movement is restricted, so the children embark on a long trek. It's a struggle. Food is scarce, and to get to Hamburg they have to cross over into the British zone. Along the way they meet a young man who has something up his sleeve which proves useful, but can they trust him MICHA (Michael) knows that his beloved Opa (grandfather) was a member of the Waffen SS, and that the Russians held him captive for nine years after the war; but he is afraid to ask his Oma (grandmother) why. He has some fond memories of his Opa, and the possibility that he might have been a murderer is hard to accept. He HAS to know, but he's scared to find out. Micha's girlfriend Mina hits the nail on the head when she asks him: "Will you still love him if he killed people?" Micha scours the library archives to try and find some mention of his Opa, and his quest becomes an obsession which in turn has a detrimental effect on relationships within his family. He even travels to Belarus, where his Opa was stationed, afraid of what he might find out. There he finds a man who remembers; a man who was there. A man who is reluctant to talk about it... These are three enthralling and very moving short stories, each offering a different perspective on how ordinary, innocent, people are affected by war. They don't all live happily ever after. I found The Dark Room hard to pick up, but impossible to put down. You should read this book. ¶ Paperback: £6.99 ¶ ISBN: 009928717X ¶ pp 391 ¶ `7 Feb 2002 ¶ ¶ Hardback: £12.99 ¶ ISBN: 0434009865 ¶ pp 391 ¶ 14 Jun 2001 ¶ ________________________
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          The Dark Room is a careful study of three Germans affected by the Second World War: Helmut the young photographer with the deformed arm; Lore the 12-year-old who manages to get her refugee siblings to Hamburg in 1945; and Micha the young teacher who pursues the truth about his grandfather's war years 50 years later.