Child of All Nations (2008, tr. Michael Hofmann. Original: Kind aller Länder, 1938) is all about voice. Not bitter nor cheerful, but something in-between.
It takes place in the late 1930’s and is narrated by nine-year-old Kully, as she and her parents wander through Europe to escape Nazi Germany. The family drifts from one European city to the next, skipping meals and camping out in hotel rooms they cannot afford.
The father, Peter, a well-known author who has been forbidden to publish in Germany, is frequently absent, and mother and daughter are left scrounging for every meal. As the story unfolds through Kully’s eyes, we feel that there is more to it than the child is able to understand at the time. Details that mean nothing to her grow in importance to our eyes: when Kully mentions a Dutch publisher, Querido immediately comes to our minds. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that war is imminent and that the family runs the risk of getting caught soon.
As it normally happens with child narrators (particularly in the case of wartime stories), Kully’s voice can be too precious at times, letting through, more often than not, the author’s adult perspective. However, when that happens, you manage to revert to the comical, so as to keep back the dramatic elements, as well as to curb your view from taking over the narrative. And we are left with the contrast between what the child sees and what we know is happening (or will happen soon), which infuses the narrative with a pervading melancholy and a sense of impending doom.
We feel that there are two stories being narrated at the same time: the one Kully is telling us from her perspective, and the one happening behind her words. “When I was in Germany, before, I did go to school, and that’s where I learned to read and write. Then my father didn’t want to be in Germany any more, because the government had locked up friends of his, and because he couldn’t write or say the things he wanted to write and say. I wonder what the point is of children in Germany still having to learn to read and write?”
Through the gaze of a naïve narrator who cannot grasp or misunderstands what is going on, you manage to bring to the fore the brutal, absurd nature of what the characters are going through. They are always on the move, plagued by constant anxiety, welcomed nowhere, with no fixed point of arrival and no way to return home.
The episodic narrative style highlights the chaos of life in exile, where everything seems to be fragmentary and provisional. If Kully cannot quite understand the world around her, the blame is not on her: hers is a world which stopped making sense. “I always wanted to see a border properly for myself, but I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t. My mother can’t explain it to me either. She says: ‘A border is what separates one country from another.’ At first I thought borders were like fences, as high as the sky. […] But …a border has nowhere for you to set your foot. It’s a drama that happens in the middle of a train, with the help of actors who are called border guards.”
“I belong nowhere now, I am a stranger or at the most a guest everywhere”, wrote Stefan Zweig in The World of Yesterday (1964, tr. B.W. Huebsch. Original: Die Welt von Gestern: Erinnerungen eines Europäers, 1941). Kully, our child of all nations, has no concept of homesickness beyond her immediate family. But the exiled makes an exile of all of us.
Kully is permanently on the brink of falling from grace, and we are trapped with her in this in-between. We know what is coming, we know we are powerless to stop it. And you manage to make us homesick in advance for this moment of precarious balance just before the fall – homesick for her in-between.
“I don’t know the song she means, but I wonder why it would make my mother so frightened and sad. I couldn’t find her face anymore, it was so far away. Then in my mind I changed my mother into a tree, because a tree is calm, a tree is unafraid. A tree doesn’t get hungry, or cry. It doesn’t laugh, and it doesn’t talk. I turned her into a tree so that she would stop trembling. After that, I was able to sleep.” – Irmgard Keun, Child of all Nations
“Everything that’s wrong in the world begins with fear. All that mess in Germany could only result because the people there have lived in fear for ever. (…) First a father demands that his child be afraid of him. Then there’s school and fear of the teacher, fear of God at church, fear of military or other superiors, fear of the police, fear of life, fear of death. Finally, the people are so crippled and warped by fear that they elect a government that they can serve in fear. Not content with that, when they see other people who are not set on living in fear, the get angry, and try in their turn to make them afraid. First of all they make God into a kind of dictator, and now they don’t need Him anymore, because they’ve come up with a better dictator themselves.” – Irmgard Keun, Child of all Nations