Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Numbing the Pain: The Blindness of the Heart or The Midday Woman

I read a lot of dark, sad Russian novels about how societal and cultural breakdowns affect individuals, so when I read Julia Franck’s The Blindness of the Heart, translated by Anthea Bell from the German original Die Mittagsfrau, I felt like I’d extended my borders westward. I love many of my Russian novels categorized as chernukha, a genre I usually describe as “dreary naturalism” or “crushing naturalism,” so I appreciate that Franck is unsparing in The Blindness of the Heart, using affectless narration to tell the story of a German woman who abandons her son just after the end of World War 2. The book is very good.

The woman, Helene, is a half-Jewish nurse who comes of age during the Weimar period. Helene’s life is difficult from the start of the book: her mother is mentally ill, her father fights in World War 1, and her older sister engages her in incest. Little gets easier for Helene, and when she and her sister go to live with their aunt in Berlin, she experiences further humiliations; her sister, also a nurse, develops a serious addiction. The one bright period in Helene’s life concludes all too quickly, and she marries a lout, though he obtains false identity papers for Helene, under the name Alice, that allow her to work.

The book is difficult to read for formal and emotional reasons: there are no quotation marks or dashes and Helene faces horrible situations and decisions that are difficult for a reader like me – I’ve had a fairly easy life without the challenge of wartime decisions – to imagine and absorb. The Blindness of the Heart focuses less on Helene’s decision to abandon her son than what leads her to make that decision. That decision is existential: Helene believes her time and energy are best spent relieving her patients’ pain, leaving her with nothing – essentially “as” nothing – to care for Peter. Death to Helene equals simply not being, and one of the terrible ironies of Helene-Alice’s life is that it is so full of pain, the very thing she tries to relieve in her patients.

Physical and psychic pain are constants in the book, as are dubious remedies like opiates and quiet suffering. Franck includes graphic descriptions of bodies and ills, effectively cascading dysfunction and upheaval from German society to human interactions and identity to anatomy. I particularly admire her ability to do that by focusing on private life rather than incorporating lots of information about history. Franck’s unemotional narrative voice and ability to convey the personal tragedy of social changes without hysteria, reflecting Helene’s state of mind, are what make The Blindness of the Heart succeed.

I’m particularly conscious of Franck’s restraint because lately I’ve read books with overlapping themes. One novel – about a Soviet-era college student who is half-Jewish and forges papers –fails, I think, largely because it’s so overwrought in places. I’ve also been rereading Liudmila Ulitskaya’s wonderful Daniel Stein, Interpreter, which includes a woman whose mother puts her and her brother in an orphanage during World War 2. I’m familiar with wartime abandonment from real-life conversations, too: the mother of a woman I knew in Moscow brought her to an orphanage as a young child, leaving her on the steps because she couldn’t feed her. Franck’s father’s mother, a nurse, abandoned him, too.

I want to mention one other thing about The Blindness of the Heart: its original German title, Die Mittagsfrau, refers to the “Midday Woman,” whom a Goethe Institut piece about Franck describes as a “ghost-like mythical character from Lusatia, the eastern German region where Helene was raised, who appears with the sun at noon. Her spell, which causes confusion, dizziness and even death, can only be resisted if her victim talks about themselves and their work.” Franck notes that Helene isn’t the Midday Woman saying, “In her life she doesn’t follow the advice of the myth. But she knows about it.” Helene and her sister think their mother was stricken by the Midday Woman but they both succumb to the spell, too, becoming numb, deadened, in different ways because they are unable – and even forbidden – to interact. With the numbness come personal losses as they deny within themselves the human qualities, the lives, they help their patients to recover so they can survive.

FYI: This book is known as The Blind Side of the Heart in Great Britain.

Disclosure: Amy of The Black Sheep Dances handed down her review copy of The Blindness of the Heart, from Grove Press. Thanks to both! I have spoken with Grove about literature in translation.

Up Next: I’ll be continuing with German novels for a bit, reading Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine.

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