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ALONE IN WAITING

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By Malcolm Forbes

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The Montréal Review, September 2011

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 "The Blindness of the Heart" by Julia Franck (Grove Press, 2010)

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Prologues and epilogues, so often skimmed and scanned, demand closer inspection if the novel they frame purports or has proven to offer a longer, worthier shelf-life than its run-of-the-mill rivals. Rather than merely bookending a humdrum yarn, a good prologue and epilogue will be studded with miniature gems that wink and entice us into and out of the grander luminescent brilliance of the narrative body. At times these gems represent stand-alone events at which the reader can marvel; other times they are like reflective shards from a diamond in that they act as microcosms for the book as a whole, offering maybe a chipped-off theme or character facet. Every prologue needs such gems to compel us to read on, but we know we are in the company of true greatness when we find they are embedded in the epilogue as well.

Writers must be wary about incorporating prologue and epilogue, not least because it is, or should be, a tricky feat: it involves time-shifts, false starts and second endings, with the reader having to be dextrously ushered backwards and forwards through the narrative, not hauled this way and that and duly disorientated. Also, in less adept hands are prologue and epilogue invariably superfluous, senselessly padding the tale as opposed to fittingly cladding it. There ought to be a rule of thumb: if in doubt, skip both. (There is a nice extension of this in the Isaac Bashevis Singer story 'Dr Beeber', in which the eponymous hero seeks only women who want short-term affairs, 'those who didn't require what he called "a prologue and an epilogue".') Prologues are harder to pull off as they are our first contact and so can make or break our decision to keep turning pages, and as a result many writers opt to play safe and cut to the chase with chapter one. Whichever they plump for, prologue or first chapter, that beginning has to both pack a punch and reverberate with more-of-the-same promise. A good opener is one of the ten commandments of any creative writing course, but so too is its corollary: grab the reader's attention and don't let him go. Luckily the thriller writer can rely on his requisite stock-in-trade box of tricks but writers of literary fiction have to make do with their wits, more dauntingly known as sheer naked talent. Ian McEwan, himself a former disciple of Malcolm Bradbury's UEA writing program, has been lauded for his openers, from the shock soar-away balloon tragedy of Enduring Love to that more subtle and sinister descent of a burning Heathrow-bound cargo plane in the otherwise maligned Saturday. Neither book has a prologue or epilogue, and rightly so, for both would be out of place around such tight and compressed narratives. (Although interestingly Enduring Love contains appendices comprising case-study notes which serve as a kind of optional afterword - we may read them but if we don't it is no great loss as the tale has already been put to bed; and Saturday, with its now infamously laughable denouement could have benefitted not from a tagged-on epilogue but an entirely rewritten finale.)

The German novelist, Julia Franck, is no creative writing graduate, but has mastered her craft through a succession of critically acclaimed books. Her new novel, The Blindness of the Heart (Die Mittagsfrau - The Midday Woman - perhaps too esoteric a title in English), was the recipient of the Deutscher Buchpreis, Germany's most prestigious literary award. In it, Franck ticks all the boxes by giving the reader a prologue and an epilogue that leave us wanting more. The prologue is particularly devastating. It is 1945 and the Russians are liberating Stettin in the east of Germany. A young boy watches as his mother is gang-raped by a group of soldiers. Afterwards, she picks herself up, packs her bags and marches her son to the railway station. We think she is fleeing the lawless post-war mêlée but it soon becomes clear she has other plans. She tells her hungry and confused son she will be right back but she turns, walks away and never returns.

Right from the start we know we are in the hands of a capable writer. Franck depicts shock and horror with minute detail - always fine pointillism, never wild brushstrokes. The boy, Peter, chews his lips, peeling off slivers of skin. He sees only 'the bare behind of one of the men' and 'his fleshy buttocks wobbled so much that Peter wanted to laugh.' When he summons the courage to go in, two of the soldiers are giving each other congratulatory claps on the back but the third is sitting on the floor, naked, head in hands, and weeping. Franck also maintains perfect poise with her prose. Lesser writers feel the need to portray weighty events with a corresponding heavy-handed style, but they end up bowed by their gravitas, with each dialogue and description appearing leaden and portentous. Franck is too good for this, and her child's-eye observations and commentary rein in her own adult, authorial judgement, and prevent the tone from slipping into the maudlin or the saccharine. We as readers quickly succumb, and are gladly pulled into this novel beginning and affected by the plight of both mother and son. It is a testament to Franck's skill as a novelist that in these twenty pages we become inextricably bound to the pair - rooting for them as they try to board a packed train, yearning with Peter as he fights sleep and keeps his tired eyes fixed on the direction in which his mother left, and then sharing his desolation as at daybreak he wakes up thirsty, soiled and alone.

How could a mother abandon her child? This premise is a puzzle whose solution, we assume, will be unveiled if we read on, and so the prologue of The Blindness of the Heart has all the lure of the first pages of a thriller. But Franck has not written that kind of book. She begins proper by taking us further back, introducing us to family life in the town of Bautzen before the opening salvoes of the First World War. Both town and family are tiny different enclaves in the rest of Germany: Bautzen is administrative home to the minority population of Slavic Sorbs, and the Würsichs, while not as bourgeois as Mann's Buddenbrooks, are certainly as dysfunctional. The two daughters, Martha and the younger Helene, seek solace in each other as their mother, Selma, sinks deeper into depression at the loss of her sons. As mourning gives way to madness, made more acute by the slow rotting decline of the paterfamilias after the war, the sisters' bond grows tighter and soon develops into incest. The family printing business slips into decline and the girls into penury. Soon they have no option but to leave their mother, find jobs and start anew in a big city. Urged on by Martha's (close) friend Leontine, they go first to Dresden to study nursing, before taking the plunge with Berlin. Essentially, then, they are forced to connect with the outside world - wrenched out of their safe provincial sanctuary and into the big, post-war melting-pot of the nation's capital.

Berlin is Franck's home, and it shows, because she brings it alive. Even before the girls get to set foot there it is hyped as a Promised Land that offers a way out. Helene sees pictures of it that prompt her to 'wax enthusiastic about the many aspects of the city. Wasn't Berlin, with its elegantly dressed women and never-ending nights, the Paris of the east, the London of Continental Europe?' Those who don't subscribe to this are ridiculed for their small-mindedness. When Nurse Helene tells a professor of surgery that she is leaving Bautzen he is shocked, 'and with his monocle in his eye turned to the large Pharus map on the wall. Berlin? He sounded as if he didn't know the city and had to look for it on the map.' When they finally arrive, the hopeless poverty and desperation that latterly afflicted the sisters in their hometown is quickly banished by 'the heaven of Berlin'. Franck is equally expert at recreating the exuberant decadence of the Weimar years and the growing Nazi menace of the thirties - its threat first smokily skirting around the girls' lives and then absolutely pervading them.

Stealthily, Franck has shifted her light: while earlier it shone on both girls and their mutual trajectories, now it begins to slide away from Martha and illuminate only Helene. That's not to say Franck jettisons her other characters, rather they are from this point on refracted through Helene. Thus it is Helene and not Franck that tells us Martha has found a position at the Jewish Hospital in Berlin, and that she now shares her bed with Leontine and so has no need of her younger sister's embraces. It is also Helene who introduces us to Aunt Fanny who has taken them in. She hosts outrageous parties attended by appropriately audacious guests, the ladies especially standing out with their 'flimsy dresses', feather boas and short hair. At the end of one soirée two gentlemen call Helene 'a pretty flapper'. She continues to observe for us, and when her stares become incredulous ('Was that a pipe Martha was smoking? Perhaps Helene was mistaken') her naivety is heightened but not to the extent that it obstructs our view.

Fanny soon takes the older Martha under her chaperonage and the two, along with Leontine, immerse themselves in the hedonistic whirl of clubs, cabarets and revues. Helene is sidelined for being too young, but also too pure, and left to read at home on the chaise longue until they stumble back in the morning, Fanny with one of her many lovers. Helene becomes hamstrung, a spectator with nothing to see, or rather show us, and as she is estranged from them she is estranged from us. As if realising she has written herself into a corner, Franck has Helene turn nineteen - 'Still not twenty-one, but old enough, as Fanny and Martha thought, to go to the White Mouse with them for the first time.' Our demure country girl gets a bob, a satin dress, and crucially, a new lease of life. Helene Würsich is no Sally Bowles but Franck arguably gets closer than Isherwood did in capturing the joyous abandon of twenties Berlin. Isherwood relied on Sally recounting her escapades, often days after they occurred; Franck, on the other hand, pushes Helene right in and consequently gives us the action as it unfolds, in real time. She also goes deeper, capitalising on Isherwood's pulse and dazzle and highlighting it as pleasure with a purpose, a societal veneer that may be as fake as Helene's eyelashes but is still the only antidote to the grim foreboding that will recommence with the cold light of day; and deeper yet, into Helene, refining her perceptions by endowing her with almost hallucinogenic clarity and so strengthening her descriptive capabilities:

The music spared nothing, no living creature, it went through her, took every particle of her and transformed the room into fragments of time. A moment ago the place had been quiet, motionless, but now it was in uproar, or so it seemed to Helene, an uproar that not only set every molecule and every organ swaying but strained the frames of the dancers' bodies and the bounds of the room itself to the utmost without breaking them apart. The music stretched, filled the place with a dull glow, glittering softly, a spray of delicate melodies no longer observing ordinary musical rules; it bent the bodies of the dancers, doubled them up, raised them again, reeds blowing in the wind.

Franck lets go here, releasing Helene's reins and allowing her to lose herself in sound and movement. But this is more than music and people and dancing; the emphasis is on what the music does to Helene and the other 'bodies', how it affects her and them. The music places her firmly in the moment and, as time is fragmented, displaces her. She is subsumed by the melodies and taken out of herself. The music no longer obeys its customary rules (it stretches and sprays) and neither does she. Franck brings Helene alive in a way neither she nor the reader could anticipate. The scene, though dealing with the physical (what was once 'motionless' is now the opposite), is actually more metaphysical (time and place are warped, and look at all those molecules and particles).

In a sense we wish Franck would do more of this. Then we remember it is not the kind of novel she has set out to write. The Blindness of the Heart sends us reeling with that powerful and troubling prologue and then takes us on a journey to join dots and explain itself. Linguistic tricks are brought out for certain occasions; Franck has enough of a job mapping the past, telling a tale, and describing that long arc to take us back where we began, hopefully more the wiser. At times characters crop up, utter a few lines and then disappear. And why shouldn't they? As the book charts a linear life-path, following a woman's progress from youth to adulthood, the heroine buffered and shaped by real, chronological historical events from several lived-in decades, Franck can ignore Aristotle's idea of protasis, the showing of the characters early on in a tale. This is less a deviation from the rules of novel-writing and more an attempt to emulate life: we, like Helene, encounter new people all the time, and only some of them stick around long enough to last the course of our lives.

As a result, it is much later that we meet Carl, Helene's first love and the man she intends to marry. He turns out to be a soulful lover and tortured philosopher, and their dates combine both sides of his character - debates on Schopenhauer and Spinoza, followed by bed in his attic room. The more time they spend together, the more Helene is able to slough off her ingénue image. Finally she can undergo her own sentimental education and enjoy the process of discovery of the opposite sex. Prior to Carl's entrance the only real man in her life has been her father, a man she loved 'too much'. Furthermore, her only experience of men is as an unwitting object of desire at the receiving end of the medical professor's luckless advances ('He smelled of tobacco and vermouth, and perhaps of masculinity') and her only experience of sex is the forbidden love with Martha in their shared bedroom. But while both Aunt Fanny and Martha approve of her sexual blossoming, there are consequences for the sisters. We are told that 'Martha was very happy to know that Helene had a boyfriend, so that she herself could live even more openly with Leontine', but this is only partly true, the tragic knock-on effect being that 'Carl Wertheimer's appearance had robbed the sisters of their conversations. They no longer had anything to say to each other.' Carl drives a wedge between them, but so too does the city in which they have chosen to embark on a new life. They have left behind the incest and the family grief but the former provided comfort from the latter and effectively bound them close together. As Berlin throws no similar problems at them, instead only introducing new lovers, the sisters slip out of their embrace and begin to drift apart. Not only does Helene lose Martha in Berlin, she also loses her faith. She tells Carl: 'I'm not ashamed any more, that's what horrifies me. Do you understand? I haven't been to church here, I've forgotten about God; for a long time I've felt ashamed when I remembered him. And now what? Nothing.'

Her belief in God belongs to a past life and so is discarded, along with the rest of her small-town sensibilities (or discarded because it is one of them). Carl doesn't help her win that belief back when he expounds to her one of his own philosophical notions: 'The God principle is built on pain. Only if pain were obliterated from the world could we speak of the death of God.' However, Helene is done with mad mothers and war-ravaged fathers, and if a return to such pain is her only means of communion with God she would rather go without. But she later finds that while she can relinquish God, she can't hide from another bout of suffering. When Carl dies in a traffic accident we are told that 'God wasn't there, she heard no voice, no sign appeared to her.' More importantly, God is neither cursed nor appealed to, leaving us to deduce that her agnosticism is complete.

This unbelief is crucial to our understanding of Helene, especially if we are to attempt to make sense of her actions later on. The new Helene is bereft. Her parents, her hometown, her sister, her fiancé and her God: Helene's life - her heart - once contained plenitudes but is now barren. Love and faith have been voided, and the inevitable upshot is that future hope is also annulled. With echoes of the earlier transcendental chaos on the dance-floor, Franck again uses time and its breakdown to illustrate Helene's heightened emotion: 'Time contracted, rolled itself up, folded itself.' Back then this displacement was due to the ecstasy of the moment and Helene's first taste of freedom; here it is because her world has caved in.

From this point on Helene is barely recognisable to us. She wanders the pages as a wraith, there in body but a mass of blanks. It goes some way to explaining her bizarre and slapdash acceptance of Wilhelm, a dry, stolid man who stands antipodal to Carl. Her initial hesitancy is not froideur or resentment at this new suitor invading her mourning but plain apathy. She marries him first and warms to him later, and soon pays a price for her reckless decision. Wilhelm is swept along on the rising fanatical tide of Nazism and secures for himself a good job designing the roads to the future, the Autobahns of the Third Reich. Subscribing to all tenets of this bold, pride-restoring ideology, he talks constantly of race and war and serving the fatherland. Helene is shocked at this transformation, or this blooming from seeds that were already there - but not as shocked as Wilhelm is at discovering that his partner is different from how he was led to believe. Their wedding night ends in disaster when he realises his trophy wife is no virgin. Worse still, she is no pure Aryan. It is bad enough that her mother is degenerately mad but her Jewishness is a more damaging matrilineal curse. Both husband and wife feel short-changed but Wilhelm is particularly aggrieved and accuses Helene of callously duping him. He wreaks revenge by locking his wife into a marriage dictated by his terms - she will not work as a nurse but instead be a model housewife. She will be more than dutiful, she will be subservient, cleaning and cooking and speaking when she is spoken to. In addition, he will call the shots in the bedroom. Sex will be cold and brutal and available at his behest. But perhaps most important of all, she must never mention the certificate of Aryan descent he procured for her.

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The years file by and Hitler's stranglehold on the nation grows tighter and the march towards war more inevitable. Wilhelm moves with these times, keeping in step with each new repressive law and calibrating his own personal capacity for cruelty accordingly. Step by step then, Franck prises out each new ugly trait in him. She is remarkable at showing, not telling, preferring to leave a trail of hints from which the reader can infer the truth. Helene's mother's Jewishness is a case in point. As it is something she is reluctant to talk about it is therefore never formally announced, and Franck builds up the mystique by keeping so much back and feeding us only morsels of information: she is known in Bautzen not as Frau Würsich but as 'the foreign woman' and is gossiped about for not accompanying her husband to St Peter's on Sunday ('Rumour said she was ungodly'). Only later do we get more concrete evidence, offered in chunks of incremental worth and culminating with the irrefutable 'synagogue' and 'menorah'; but the words are dropped so casually into the text and at a juncture when the woman's role in the book is over that we feel foolish for not having gleaned faster and arrived sooner.

The novel is full of such examples demanding inference. The backdrop is Germany in the horrifying first half of the twentieth century but not once does Franck provide us with a single date. When the girls' father goes off to war we are not even sure which war and so wait hungrily for more of those tossed scraps of information. We get them, but piecemeal: 'Kaiser'...'hussar'... 'sword', before ending with the climactically decisive 'Verdun'. At other times Franck will let social and cultural references do the work. Helene suggests to Carl a trip to the cinema - 'How about Charlie Chaplin in The Circus?' - and he replies by reeling off a list of contemporary alternatives. When they go to see 'the new play at the Schiffbauerdamm theatre' we only know they are attending a rousing performance of The Threepenny Opera by the clues 'Lotte Lenya', 'Macheath' and the jubilant reception of 'Mack the Knife'. Vendors sell newspapers of the period: Querschnitt, Die Vossische, Der Völkische Beobachter; a girl has a handcart of Rote Fahne; a man with a strange accent (Russian, it turns out) has Weltbühne, and these 'small red magazines were selling well'. On arriving in Berlin Helene buys Vorwärts, the Socialist weekly paper (and hopes that turning up at her aunt's with it will 'give an impression of elegance'). The hollered headlines are as specific as Franck wants to get but ably fill in her gaps: 'Petitions from the Democratic parties rejected!' and 'The National Socialist Party's Sturmabteilung forges ahead!' and 'Occupation of the Ruhr goes on! No coal for France! Earthquake in China!' Sometimes she lifts the headlines out of the papers and incorporates them into dialogue. On the Berlin train Helene and Martha hear the rest of the carriage exchanging views on 'the latest incidents in Schleswig-Holstein'. At one of Fanny's get-togethers a man gives Carl financial advice based on 'the collapse in America.'

And then all of a sudden history comes flooding into the novel. Franck maintains the coy ellipses but goes all out on era-defining events: SA troops stamp across the pages; Jews are introduced as the Jewish boycott is enforced, 'to leave certain parasites, useless mouths, to starve to death'; the Führer, hitherto an elephant in the room, is finally name-checked. Where have all these people been? It is as if Franck has tripped a switch to raise a screen and end the soundproofing. If the novel doesn't become fully political it at least ceases to shy from the then-unfolding gritty reality. However, it is neither scattergun referencing, nor a contrived attempt to twine portentous events with momentous character developments. On the contrary, and in fact the noting of each historic event works best when it is juxtaposed with a trivial or domestic occasion in Helene's life. We hear of the Reichstag fire and the ensuing Nazi hunt for scapegoats, but Franck downsizes its significance to a footnote by centring on Wilhelm's persistent courting of Helene (who he calls Alice):

Wilhelm fetched Helene from the hospital as often as he could. Communist after communist was arrested. Wilhelm went walking with his blonde Alice and took her to the café. He said he liked to watch her eating cake, she always looked as if she hadn't eaten properly for days. Helene stopped eating in alarm. She wasn't sure that she wanted to know what Wilhelm thought when he saw her eating. Eating had become a mere nuisance to her, and she often forgot about it until evening. She didn't like the apple cake, she just swallowed it as quickly as possible to get it over with. Wilhelm asked if he could order her another slice. Helene shook her head and said no, thank you.

In Franck's hands the worldly chafes the quotidian. Marooned amongst all this diffidence and facile talk of eating is a single sentence about the Communist roundup. Blink and it is missed. And yet, in a stroke of genius, it isn't, for its incongruity makes it all the more glaring.

By the time Helene has fallen pregnant her marriage is close to disintegration. Wilhelm is not interested in her 'brat' and ups his campaign of cruelty. Helene buckles under his command and has no choice but to accept his warped prioritising - always ironing shirts and cooking his meals and putting her newborn child second and herself third. She functions by slipping into automaton-mode, but it isn't long before this turns into her permanent default setting. Thus the blindness of her heart - the book's title - becomes complete. Until now Franck has played with heart-imagery, skilfully steering it away from triteness by employing novel permutations: Fanny's friend The Baron is diagnosed with 'a chill of the heart'; Wilhelm equates racial purity with having a 'spotless heart'; later he tells his unwanted son that his mother has a heart of stone. There is one short but key scene in which Helene overhears a mother and her son in church. The impatient boy starts wailing that he can't see God. 'No one can see him, said the mother, you can't see him with your eyes. You have to see with your heart, child.' But Helene has grown 'ungodly' like her mother, and won't 'see' God with eyes or heart. As her heart shrivels and goes blind she becomes unequivocally her mother's daughter, a transition both she and the reader could never have expected: 'But her mother could no longer recognise her younger daughter, her heart had gone blind, as Martha said, so that she couldn't see people any more. She could tolerate only those whom she had met before the death of her four sons.' Helene has lost Martha to Leontine and Berlin, and Carl and her father to the God she has renounced. She will abandon her son just as her mother curled herself into a ball and shut out her daughters. We can call it an act of heartlessness but Franck prefers to term it acting while your heart is blind. At least her mother could find consolation in her collection of salvaged knick-knacks - from which she could try to 'understand the natural order of things.' Helene collects nothing and has nothing.

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In an interview with the world literature platform, The Ledge, Franck discusses her own past. She talks in detail about her family's flight from East to West Germany when she was young, and how she has gone on to utilise this key episode of her life in her fiction. For her, looking back at the past is vital as it helps 'to understand how history becomes history. And how the history of a society can be mirrored in a very private, personal history. In an individual life.' Franck deals with history in The Blindness of the Heart but she also distils it so as to give us an accurate depiction of Helene, that 'individual life'.

The reader is brought even closer to Helene at the end of the novel. Wilhelm has left her and she is alone with her son. Franck doesn't scrimp on detailing the hard actualities. Had Hans Fallada not got there first with (albeit the English-edition title) Alone in Berlin, Franck could have used it to describe her protagonist's predicament. For although Helene has Peter she is desperately lonely. Shorn of family and love, she is waiting for an end to suffering, waiting for things to get better. Curiously, though, she is not waiting for an end to war. It has unostentatiously arrived: once again we are only drip-fed hints - Helene takes Peter to see incoming warships; there is talk among the senior nurses of sending Helene to a field hospital; the draper is taken away in February with 'the rest of them, to the East, it was said.' Soon war encroaches on her life and consumes it, perhaps sapping some of that loneliness. She can give Peter to a neighbour and spend her days in the operating theatre, healing the wounded with depleting medical supplies and near-drained energy whilst trying to obliterate the fact that the feared Red Army are outside the city, having 'licked up blood as they made their way forward.'

But she can only lose herself so much in work. Offloading Peter to the neighbour affords her only temporary respite. She seeks a permanent solution and an opportunity presents itself one day during a walk in the woods. In a bravura piece of writing Franck blends interior monologue with exterior commentating, cleaving the imminent horror of a woman on the verge of abandoning her child with the real and present horror of other company in the wood:

Wait a minute, Mother. Peter wanted to stop and look around, work out which way the shots were coming from. But Helene wouldn't wait, his hand slipped out of hers, she hurried on, stumbling, falling, leaning on fallen trees for support, clinging to twigs and branches, she went and never stopped, putting one foot in front of the other. She could run. Rabbit with mushrooms, a really simple dish. The cunning hare sits in the dale, / between the hills and the deep, deep vale. Ah yes, in the vale. Cattle. How could she ever have eaten rabbit?

Her mind is in turmoil, her thoughts tangled, but she is also frighteningly clear-sighted: 'She could run'. As the scene expands we realise there is more horror in the mix. Helene is fleeing from her son but also from the gunshots and the stench of 'cattle' ('not carrion, more like liquid manure') that is coming from train wagons on a nearby track. She clambers over tree trunks and hides from her son and soon discovers that 'the cow being hunted was a man', presumably an escaped prisoner, 'for who else would huddle under the branches of the fallen tree in such flimsy clothing?' The whole scene is a master-class in deception. Franck delicately manipulates the truth to hoodwink her characters and the reader. Each horrifying reality is only insinuated and so, correspondingly, the prose remains eerily calm. Similarly, Franck is adroit at supplanting one level of cruelty with another, deviously hiding the seams, so that by the time we glimpse the cowering prisoner we have, like Helene, regained our breath and forgotten the terrified plangent wailing of the lost boy. The result is unsettling, an amalgamation of shock and cool indifference. Even the tree trunks disturb, being both challenging obstacles and precarious hiding places, and we recall Kafka's parable, 'The Trees', in which their sturdiness is seen as illusory, as 'a little push should be enough to set them rolling.'

Helene reaches breaking-point at the join between the end of the novel and the beginning of the prologue. Many authors choose to record earlier events in their prologue to those on display in chapter one and later elucidating why the former is relevant to the latter; but Franck's approach is different, as her prologue is the true end of the tale, with the epilogue then appearing as the tacked-on conclusion, ten years later. We remember the gang-rape in the first pages and realise Helene is down to her last. We also remember a line in the middle of the novel, during happier times, when Carl and Helene consolidate their love; Franck informs us that 'Carl and Helene were alone in waiting no longer' - a rather unwieldy translation from the original, less lyrical German: ' Allein Carl und Helene warteten nicht mehr.' The crux is that now, at the end, Helene can't wait alone any more. She drags Peter to the station but unlike the adventure in the woods this is to be no trial run. They will both flee this suffering but then she will branch off and leave him. He will wait in vain for her to return in the same way that she has spent years waiting for a change in fortune, that glimmer of hope. As with Helene's loss of Carl, Peter will soon have to resign himself to the fact that his loss is for good, a deficit unable to be filled.

In an earlier short story entitled 'Family Friend' from the collection Bauchlandung (Belly Flop, 2000) Franck tells of a woman who drugs her children so that she can successfully escape with them over the border into West Berlin. This subject of a family fleeing (a chapter of course from Franck's own past) was enlarged upon in her 2003 novel Lagerfeuer (Camp Fire), but is given reverse and novel treatment in The Blindness of the Heart by having a mother flee without her child - or, more accurately, from it. It is a bold conceit and at the end it is up to the reader to decide if the author has been able to pull it off - has she dealt enough hardship to Helene to sufficiently explain her actions? What is beyond dispute is her credible portrayal of a woman's suffering as a result of private loss and national catastrophe. In Alone in Berlin, Fallada describes a floundering character as being 'so unequal to the complexities of these [Nazi] times he was already doomed.' Perhaps the same can be said of Helene, that despite valorous attempts to the contrary she was never going to stand a chance of happiness whilst a citizen of Berlin during the Third Reich.

In order to get to the rationale behind Helene's ultimate desperate act, the arc that Franck has begun tracing to take us back to the prologue gradually turns into an ever-darkening penumbra. Mercifully the rest of the book does not bask in the prologue's shadow - the danger of a really good prologue being that the writer peaks too soon. When we go back to the prologue to connect it to the novel's final chapter we find we are not numbed by familiarity but jolted all over again. The Blindness of the Heart is a novel whose prologue lacks the noisy fanfare of a McEwan opening and is all the better for it: stunning and disquieting, like the rest of the book; painful and understated, nothing louder than a woman beating a quiet retreat, but one which emanates shock-waves throughout the rest of this fine novel.

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MALCOLM FORBES:

TUNNEL VISION

In his essay 'The Argentine Writer and Tradition' Borges talks of a 'rupture' between his country and Europe, New World and Old, and that 'we Argentines are cut off from the past'. Such detachment can be advantageous as it encourages rediscovery on the part of the Argentine writer, a re-delving into the history and culture of his own country, without the taint of European influence. But there is a downside to detachment, namely isolation, and Borges goes on to assert that the other effect of this sundering is a kind of decree of non-participation: 'We must understand that we are essentially alone and cannot play...' | read |

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Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer whose work has appeared in many print and online literary journals. Born in Edinburgh, he is currently based in Berlin.

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