The Dark Room – Rachel Seiffert – Book Review
‘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. This relates to the idea that abused people become abusers, which has become something of a dodgy stereotype, but I don’t think this is Seiffert’s point. The fact that Seiffert’s characters have suffered in some way is merely part of their humanity, well adjusted people tend to be in the minority. Everyone has 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.