Sunday, 4 May 2008

running scared

Child Of All Nations
by Irmgard Keun

Kully is a nine year old girl growing up in 1930's Europe. Along with her father and mother the family move from country to country as exiles because;

...we can't return to Germany, because then the government would lock us up, ever since my father told the French newspapers and other newspapers, and he even wrote it in a book, about how much he hates the government.

Kully's narrative voice (and Michael Hoffman's excellent translation) moves this novel along at quite a pace. As you can see it is a voice of innocence and experience at the same time. Not only is she a child living in dangerous times but her parents a far from model. Her father in particular is not to be relied upon. A writer constantly in search of the next publisher, borrowing money from all and sundry and dragging his wife and daughter around to leave as surety when he needs to borrow more. Kully remembers vividly a time when he almost forget to come back for her, an episode which captures strikingly the trust a child places in their parents. And so often in this story Kully and her mother are left waiting, suffering the indignity of the changing attitudes of hotel staff as telegrams and letters keep them posted on the progress of earning enough to pay the hotel bill.

A young narrator is a risk but Keun hits just the right note, avoiding sentimentality and often cutting to the heart of the matter. She has a unique way of looking at the adult world.

A border has nowhere for you to set your foot. It's a drama that happens in the middle of a train, with help from actors who are called border guards.

She is also very funny, her unique take on things often throwing up hilarious observations.

She ordered bouillabaisse, which is a kind of soup that's made out of the Mediterranean; all the creatures in the Mediterranean float around it in a hard-to-identify way, and some of them of course are poisonous. When people have had enough of life, they can choose to die either by mushrooms or bouillabaisse, but in either case I think they have to order it specially from the hotel kitchen.

Keun's novel was first published in 1938, before war broke out and certainly before the true scale of Nazi atrocities would be known. It is amazing therefore with the benefit of hindsight to see the prescience of this novel. Not so much in foretelling the scale of destruction but in showing with an observer's eye the impact of diaspora on any community. What do you call home if it isn't a place and it isn't your family?

Michael Hoffman's excellent afterword explains a little more about Keun, who was the partner of Joseph Roth in the last years of his life (and may have provided inspiration for the character of Kully's father), as well as correctly identifying the weakness of the ending. As soon as Kully boards the boat to America there is a dissipation of tension from which the novel never quite recovers. It's charting of their nomadic existence in Europe is finely observed however and makes a compelling case for Keun to emerge from the shadow of her partner and hopefully for more of her work to become available in English.


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