Book Review: The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert

the dark roomFirst published 5th July 2002

Review by DAPHNE LEE

By Rachel Seiffert
Publisher: Pantheon

RACHEL Seiffert’s debut novel The Dark Room looks at the horrors of Nazi Germany from the perspective of three young Germans who are more observers than participants of the events that unfold around them. Indeed, one of these individuals, Micha, lives in 1990s Germany and it is his grandfather who provides the link to the atrocities committed by Hitler’s Third Reich during World War II.“Micha” is the third and last of the three parts that make up The Dark Room. The central figure is a medical student who struggles to come to terms with the fact that his grandfather helped to murder innocent Jews. Micha represents the present generation of Germans, some of whom are still plagued by guilt over what their ancestors have done.

In the first part, Helmut, the only child of working-class Berliners, suffers from a slight physical deformity. The boy, nevertheless, has a happy life, cared for by his loving, responsible and patriotic parents.

As a teenager, Helmut discovers he has a gift for photography and eventually finds work as a photographer’s assistant. War is declared, but his handicap prevents him from enlisting. In an attempt to distract himself from his feelings of inadequacy, Helmut busies himself by recording, with his camera, the rise and fall of Hitler’s regime as reflected by the changes within Berlin.

Helmut observes, with growing concern, the emptying of the city and the death trains passing through on their way to the concentration camps, but the true significance of these events is lost on him.

The second story is about 14-year-old Lore, left to fend for herself and her four younger siblings, as the German army falls to the Allied forces. Lore’s parents, who were active members of the Nazi party, have been arrested and will stand trial for war crimes. The mother abandons her children because she knows that they will, otherwise, suffer by association; but Lore’s task (to lead her siblings across Germany, in search of their grandmother) is, by no means, the easy alternative. The children’s journey is a dangerous and harrowing one, and exposes them not only to physical hardship, but, perhaps more devastating, the truth behind their parents’ wartime activities.

Helmut and Lore are both children of the Third Reich, but their support of this murderous regime is unwitting, born of an unquestioning loyalty to parents and state. Lore’s parents are informed supporters of Hitler, but Helmut’s have an almost blind devotion to the Fuhrer. Like most of their fellow Germans, they regard the Final Solution to be no more than a political slogan, a catchphrase of the times they live in. Their allegiance is more to their homeland than to Nazi policies.

It follows that Helmut’s patriotism prevents him from recognising the truth that he sees through his camera lens. As for Lore, the truth is at odds with her hitherto unquestioning faith in her parents. And Micha too struggles with reality, reeling from the manner in which it distorts and destroys his perception of his family and his beliefs.

Micha is the only one of Seiffert’s subjects to be temporally removed from the Second World War and the Nazis’ activities in the death camps, but he is perhaps the most emotionally affected. Hindsight gives him an unvarnished picture of the truth. Extensive coverage in literature and film and by the media leaves nothing to the imagination.

The three parts are written in present tense, in short sentences and paragraphs, with little use of imagery, metaphor and other literary devices. The reader feels like he is looking through the notes of a writer who is planning a book about the Nazi occupation. But this succinct style doesn’t dampen the power of the images that flit across your mind as you read. Perhaps with subject matter like this, one needs just the bare minimum of words.

Like Micha, most 21st century readers are aware of what took place in the concentration camps and this knowledge, plus some imagination, is all it takes to fill in the gaps in Seiffert’s bleak narratives, turning them into vivid representations of the times.

rachel s
Rachel Seiffert

The stories take shape according to each reader’s individual perception, understanding and approach, changing and developing like photographs in a dark room. For some, the themes of betrayal, treachery, sin and redemption may be of first importance, while others might be moved chiefly by the characters’ shared sense of frustration, failure and futility.

The three young Germans face an uncertain future – a metaphorical dark room – but their stories can give readers the liberating and illuminating awareness that in war, everyone involved is a victim.

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