Claudia Putnam's Reviews > The Dark Room

The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert
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really liked it
bookshelves: literary-fiction

I might rather give this 3.5 or 3.75, but skewing up for ambition.

Although the characters were so well drawn it was hard to let go of them and move to the next story, I disagree with the reviewers who felt that it was a flaw in the book to keep each storyline separate. The author faced tradeoffs either way. If she'd interlinked the three stories somehow, say by having them all be about members of the same multigenerational family, or perhaps in the same neighborhood, she would not have been able to show the impact of the war and the Holocaust on such a wide variety of people across class and party lines.

I also thought her decision was useful to the reader in that we could see that all these *separate* people were affected in all these *different* but totally haunting ways.

For me the biggest ding came in that the novel was a little too spare, a little too weighted, perhaps, toward showing rather than telling--not enough interiority, even though all these characters are so isolated and on their own. It's an amazing trick, actually, for the author to have managed. Each character is stuck, pretty much, in his or her own head with almost no one to turn to. But somehow we are *shown* and shown and shown. Very hard to do. Some of this is probably the immediacy of the war in the first two sections. Each character is reactive, putting one step in front of the other. All the same, I would have liked it if these character were thinkers, a little more, if they were the types to reflect. They would have been more interesting to me, and I think the book would have been richer. Contrast Stones from the River.

Even the last character, Micha, can't quite pull together what he learns. He's the only one to confront the Holocaust head-on, and he's given some unbelievably amazing first-hand information about it. He's told by a Belorussian who collaborated with the Nazis, what it was like to be one of the killers, one of those who machine-gunned Jewish women and children into the trenches. Why he did it, why he did not refuse--and also Micha is given the crucial information, not widely available to any of us in modern times, I don't think--THAT REFUSAL WAS POSSIBLE... he says that they, including the Germans, were allowed to refuse this part of their duty, *without consequence.* But almost no one did.

Micha is given this information, almost against his will, even though he's gone to Belorussia specifically to get this information, to find out to what extent his beloved grandfather was involved. And yet, as his wife repeatedly demands, what is the point of this? He's unable to integrate it. The society around him has no container for it. And he himself can't really do anything with it, because *it makes no sense.* It makes no sense now, as the collaborator admits. He can see that it was wrong, he even understood that it was wrong at the time. But it made a kind of sense, anyway, at the time. He cried, the killer says, after he shot those people, many of the men who shot them did. But it was wrong, he says, to have cried, and it's wrong to cry now.

I don't mind having to do a lot of work after a reading a novel, to have to think things through. But one problem in society today is that it's not like a book comes out and we all sit down and read it and argue about it, the way they did in Russia when there was something new by Tolstoy out. So, I can't really turn to anyone and say, well, what do YOU make of the fact that these people shot all these other people and then went on living their lives and lovable people? What about what this collaborator says about this? Was it like the genocide that went on in America, and if the Germans had won--well, I don't think they ever could have won, Germany was not a big enough country to rule the world, but perhaps they could have been not exactly defeated, and perhaps Hitler could have stayed in charge, and perhaps there would have been a bigger Germany, a Nazi Germany for longer. Perhaps it would have collapsed as the Soviet state collapsed, or perhaps the Nazi part would have caved after a while. But with the Jews and the other ethnic groups that the Nazis didn't like GONE, with all of that as a fait accompli, then what? Would they feel about as guilty as we feel about the Indians? Yes, that was bad, but it was done in the past, and we don't see their faces, there is no one to mourn, it's over with. (I am putting this in the harshest possible terms for the sake of argument. For me, it's not over with.) I do know a couple of young German people who are angry about the way their country is portrayed, who feel the story has been told by the victors, who feel that what was done was no worse than the bombings of Dresden, etc, who resent the loss of "family" land in Poland or wherever. I'm not saying they're right, just that they don't *feel* it.

Just that maybe it was a miserable thing to be involved in, but if the Germans had come out on top, it would be OVER, and then they could have gone on with their lives, the way Americans went on with their lives after disposing of the Indians, Turks went on after disposing of the Armenians, etc. So perhaps that is what the collaborator was saying, that a lot of his pain came from having been on the wrong side. He knows it was wrong, but--all spoils to the victor. Had the Germans won, perhaps he would have had his revenge, not on the Jews, who he understood were a displaced target anyway, but against the Communists, and against any neighbors he wanted to lord it over as well. Perhaps it was worth the risk.

Anyhow, some reflection on Micha's part might have helped us work through this... not, perhaps, to any special conclusion, but he might consider some of the possible ones. Or I thought he could have discussed it with his sister, Luise, when he returned.

But then I think: maybe not. Maybe this is just what you live with. This is the reality of what was done, this is who they were, they had no good reasons. They were given guns, they were given orders, they didn't even hate that much, they just did it, because they wanted it to be over and done with.

"People just do it, and then they go on," is as close as the book comes. And maybe that's as close as we can ever get.

The first two sections deal with characters who are in the throes of the war but who don't personally have anything to do with the Holocaust. One character is only kept from participating as a soldier by a disability. It's a small one--he's congenitally missing a pectoral muscle. Because we see him from birth we can see how even this very tiny problem haunts him and his family. Well before the Nazis came along, there seems to have been an emphasis on physical perfection and performance in sports, and it's a great shame to this boy and his parents when it finally becomes obvious at school that he cannot participate in team sports. He's loved by his parents, but: "The midwife takes her husband aside when he arrives home from work. Heads him off before he reaches the bedroom door. Unlike his wife, he never gets to look at his son and feel him perfect, to love him prior to knowing his fault."

Seiffert makes use of cliches about German national traits without making it seem as if she does. Both the first and third main characters share OCD traits, and the middle character also has an extraordinary eidetic memory. The first character is obsessed with train schedules, which makes him aware of the large numbers of people leaving Berlin--more than can be accounted for by those fleeing for the countryside or departing for the front. The third character is obsessed with family trees--I mean, as an adult, constantly reciting the relationships among his family members to himself in the most juvenile way--which leads him to his grandfather, and what he might have done during the war.

While there's a great deal of love and loyalty within families, there doesn't seem to be a lot of actual warmth or physical demonstrativeness. No one is allowed to cry, ever, it seems, for any reason, even into the 1990s. It's worse than New England! Who knows what that does to a culture.

You become aware that even if the characters, especially the first two, are only peripherally aware of what's happening in the Holocaust, theirs souls are being eroded by the decisions of others nonetheless. In Helmut's case, it's the way his beloved city has been drained of its vitality, and not just by war but in some other way that he can document as a photographer but not define. In Lore's case, it's the loss of her parents and of the ideal of her parents, the way the blasted countryside mirrors her inner holocaust.

She survives, but does she? We're left to wonder, one of those tradeoffs the author made.

And, as Micha points out, Germany grows into a country that teaches the Holocaust in school, takes its children on field trips to the camps, makes them write essays and give presentations. But it doesn't make them ask *who*. Who AMONG US? Which of our grandparents on whose laps we grew up sitting... It doesn't connect that final dot.

Before Micha heads off to Belarus to learn as much of the truth as he's able to handle (which is less than he likes to think of himself as wanting to learn), his father tells him that although he loved and admired the grandfather, he himself has always thought that there was a possibility he might have done the terrible things Micha suspects. The grandfather was in the Waffen-SS. He was in the east, and the SS were sent to the east pretty much to do one thing. The Russians held him for more than decade after the war, though they kept many officers, not just war criminals. He says:

"I have never told your mother than I think this, and I never will. I am only telling you now because I want to explain. I wanted it to stop with our generation. Yes? Bernd, your uncle, was already born after the war. Do you understand? I didn't want you and Luise to be touched by it. Aksan [the grandfather] loved you both. That's the part of him I wanted you to have."

Micha goes to Belarus anway, seeking understanding that, by the novel's end, still eludes us all.
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Reading Progress

January 16, 2014 – Started Reading
January 16, 2014 – Shelved
January 18, 2014 – Shelved as: literary-fiction
January 18, 2014 – Finished Reading

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