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  • The Dark Room
  • Written by Rachel Seiffert
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307428363
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The Dark Room

Written by Rachel SeiffertAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Rachel Seiffert

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42836-3
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A debut novel that retells the history of twentieth-century Germany through the experiences of three ordinary Germans.

Helmut: A boy born with a physical deformity finds work as a photographer’s assistant during the 1930s and captures on film the changing temper of Berlin, the city he loves. But his acute photographic eye never provides him with the power to understand the significance of what he sees through his camera. . . . Lore: In the weeks following Germany’s surrender, a teenage girl whose parents are both in Allied captivity takes her younger siblings on a terrifying, illegal journey through the four zones of occupation in search of her grandmother. . . . Micha: Many years after the war, a young man trying to discover why the Russians imprisoned his grandfather for nine years after the war meets resistance at every turn; the only person who agrees, reluctantly, to help him is compromised by his own past.

The Dark Room evokes the experiences of the individual with astonishing emotional depth and psychological authenticity. With dazzling originality and to profound effect, Rachel Seiffert has re-envisioned and illuminated signal moments of the twentieth century in all their drama and complexity.

Excerpt

Part One
Helmut

Berlin, april 1921

Birth. His mother cuddles him and cradles him and feeds him his first meal. Happy to hold this life she has felt within her all these months. He is a little premature, but not too small, and his miniature fists grip fast to her fingers. She knows him already, and loves him. The midwife takes her husband aside when he arrives home from work. Heads him off before he reaches the bedroom door. Unlike his wife, he never gets to look at his son and feel him perfect, to love him prior to knowing his fault.

The clinic is busy, the doctor brisk but sympathetic, recommended by the midwife. The new parents are told it is a congenital condition, but not serious. Put simply, their son is missing a muscle in his chest. Provided he is given regular physical therapy, he will certainly be able to write and do all the tasks required in everyday life. He will never have full use of his right arm, of course, and manual labour will be impossible, but the absence of a pectoral muscle need not be a significant hindrance. He might even be able to play sports in time, though they are not to raise their hopes too high.

At home they watch their baby closely while he gurgles and kicks in his drawer-for-a-cot. His curved limbs and long toes, creases of new skin. He is beautiful, and the new parents smile at each other, each ready to laugh if the other will. They remove their son’s little undershirt and inspect his chest and his right armpit as he moves. He is thinner on one side than the other, it is true. But both arms pump just as vigorously when he is fed or tickled, and he is robust and lively.

Mutti cries: There’s nothing wrong. Papi puts his arms around her, still watching his son. They sit together on the bed for a long time, breathing, while the baby sleeps. And they name their tiny boy Helmut, bright nature, because that is how they see him. Perfect enough, and that is just fine.

Life between wars is harsh: food plain, luxuries scarce, living space small.

Helmut’s Papi is a veteran, and still coughs in the night and in the autumn, when the weather is damp. He is older than his wife and grateful for his chance at happiness, so he leaves the house early, every day, finds work, again and again. The flat he comes home to is always clean, with at least one of the two rooms kept warm. And since Helmut’s Mutti is a clever housewife, there is always something on the table.

Both parents are very happy with their one child, and take precautions against having more, showering their love on Helmut, who laughs much more than he cries. The mattress the three of them share is wide and warm, and though he is now talking and walking, a separate bed for Helmut seems extravagant, uncalled for, a shame. Mutti grows herbs on the windowsill, and flowers, which she lets her son tend; and if Papi is not too tired when he comes home, he will sing a bedtime song or two for the boy. The morning and evening exercises are a game Helmut plays with his parents. He is to think that all boys do this, to be strong like their fathers. That all families are as happy as this.

In the hot summers of early childhood, Helmut’s Mutti takes him on the long journey north to the coast while his father works on in the city, at whatever he can find. Helmut is brown as a nut within a week, and his hair sun-blond. He plays, naked, in the shallows with other children, and Mutti makes friends with other mothers on the beach. She never draws attention to her son’s chest, to his arm, and when the other women don’t seem to notice, Mutti chats more freely, relaxes, lies back and enjoys the company and sun.

Summer nights in hostel rooms full of whispering mothers. Bedtime stories for sleepless children, confidences and shared cigarettes by a window open to the hot dark sky.

Helmut feels his mother climb into bed, smells the fresh smoke in her hair. Closes his eyes again, falls asleep again. Thumb in his mouth, sand under his fingernails, salt beach taste on his skin.

Helmut’s father has found regular work with Herr Gladigau, who owns the photography shop at the station. Three or four days a week of assured income. Papi cleans the darkroom, changes the chemicals, and minds the shop when Herr Gladigau has appointments to attend. Gladigau likes his new employee, trusts him. He is childless, a widower, and enjoys the contact he has gained with a young and happy family. He can’t afford to pay as much as he would like, as much as Helmut’s family needs. To compensate, he offers to create a photographic record of family life. A portrait sitting every six months is the initial agreement: while the boy is young and growing quickly. Mutti is excited, Papi slightly embarrassed, but also pleased. They arrange the first session for the following week.

The print Papi chooses has Helmut standing on his father’s knee, pointing with his right hand toward Herr Gladigau’s decorative palms, which are on the left-hand side of the picture, next to his mother. Both of his parents are looking at him and smiling. A blond boy, growing out of babyhood, his right arm at full stretch, at shoulder height, perhaps just over. A normal pose for an inquisitive, active child, though unconventional for a portrait.

Gladigau favors the more sedate pictures taken earlier in the session, in which all the sitters face the camera and have their hands folded in their laps. But his employee is quietly adamant, and Gladigau can find no reason to refuse his request. He chooses a simple frame from the middle price range and wraps the portrait neatly.
The carefully patched clothes and prominent cheekbones in this and the following portraits are painful for Gladigau to see. Papi is with him almost daily, with the same face, same jacket and shoes. But in the photographs, in the darkroom, it is all too plain, sharp, clear: the cabbage-and-potato diet, the mend-and-make-do of the man’s life, his wife, his son with the crooked arm. As soon as he can, Gladigau makes Papi’s job full-time.

There is enough money now to move into a better flat. The tenements near the station are well maintained, light and clean, and Helmut, now grown out of his parents’ bed, can have a box room of his own. Their new neighbors are friendly and house-proud, and there are plenty of local children for Helmut to play with. At first he is shy, preferring to watch the trains pull in and out of the station. Long mornings spent gazing out of the kitchen window, while his mother sings behind him as she cooks and cleans. Soon, though, he takes to watching the trains from the landing, and then the back steps. Before long he has forgotten the trains and runs around the back court with the other children, playing riotous, overlapping games of hide-and-chase and catch.

Mutti looks for her son in the flat, on the landing, out on the back steps, sees him running. She spends an afternoon at the kitchen window, watching him play. Mutti can see how her son’s right arm lags behind him as he runs. How his right shoulder hangs lower, and the way he introduces a small skip into his gait every so often, to help his right side catch up with the rest of his slight frame. She can also see that Helmut is unaware of this. Shifting her attention to the other children, she sees little feet that limp without shoes as they run over the rough ground. Pale complexions and eyes ringed dark with hunger, bitten nails and straggly pigtails. Of course, shoes can be bought, and so can food. Certainly bad habits can be dropped and hair can be brushed. Helmut cannot be cured by prosperity, by nourishment, or by discipline. But none of the neighborhood children mock him, or even stare. And though she never gives up the habit of watching, checking, Helmut’s Mutti does allow herself to feel relieved.

With school, though, there comes a change. The sports teacher
orders a full inspection of his new charges. Shirts off, they stand to attention in order of height. Those deemed in need of special treatment are pulled out of line and assembled in a raggedy bunch in the corner of the schoolyard. Helmut finds himself among the fat boys and the weak boys with bad teeth, and doesn’t know why. Once it is established, in front of the silent eyes of his class, that unlike the others he cannot raise his right arm above his shoulder, Helmut knows there is something wrong with him.

At home Mutti cries, and later Papi rages. He goes to the school with Helmut the next day and demands that his son be allowed to take sports with the healthy boys. He has never had problems out in the back court with the neighborhood children, or on the beach in summer.

Papi is asked to wait in the wide lobby. There is no chair, so he stands near the door, on the edge of the parquet with its high wax shine. A class ends, another begins, and Papi is now very late for work. In the silence he remembers Helmut’s birth. The clinic they took him to, with the same corridors; same wide, swinging doors; same stifled, shameful feeling about his son. He resents the midwife, the doctor she sent them to. Blames them for coming between him and his child. Resents the headmaster, too, though he does not argue when he is finally sent word. The school will not reverse the decision. Helmut will take gymnastics to supplement his daily physical therapy, but no team games unless his condition improves. Papi reads the note, picks up his hat and coat, and leaves.

At home that evening, Helmut’s father takes him on his knee. He is a strong little man, loved by his Mutti and Papi, and he will work hard to prove himself to the school. They will do it together, all three of them. The strength of the family will prevail.

But Helmut is still with the fat boys and the weak boys with bad teeth, and he still can’t catch a ball thrown over shoulder height. At home, the twice-daily exercises become more vigorous, less fun,
especially when performed with his father. In the toilet down the corridor, he scrutinizes the thin twist of muscle below his right collarbone. In the wide, sleek bakery window, he sees how his right arm hangs: low and crooked, crowding his narrow chest.

Helmut still plays in the back court with the neighborhood children, but Mutti also frequently catches sight of him standing at the high fence at the far end of the tenements, staring through the slats at the trains pulling in and out. It is not a large station, but most days there are two or three passenger trains arriving from other cities, going to places far away. Dresden, Leipzig, Stuttgart, Munich.

Helmut does not concern himself with engine numbers or types of carriage. He likes times and destinations, arrivals and departures. He likes to watch the people, in groups and alone, with trolley-loads of baggage, or carrying nothing. By their other-city walks and clothes, he can tell if someone hasn’t been to Berlin before.
Helmut is not always alone by the high fence. His encyclopedic knowledge of the timetable impresses many of the other little boys. He also makes friends with the guards, quizzing them on arrivals and distances through the turnstile bars. Soon he is allowed onto the platform, where he collects the punched tickets from the passengers as they disembark. Those who notice his arm and his patched clothes sometimes slip a groschen into his hand. Helmut is faintly embarrassed by these gestures: certain his parents would disapprove, uncertain as to why. But he never refuses the strangers’ gifts: the ability to buy sweets is a powerful weapon in the war for friends. He uses his access to the railway station and his small bags of licorice well. As favors bestowed, not pleas for acceptance. The neighborhood children often come calling, clatter down the stairs behind him, across the back court to the tracks.

The family photos show a healthy boy, already quite tall, standing between his parents, both seated slightly in front of him. He has a sailor suit on, the regular uniform for boys on Sundays and holidays. His right arm rests on his mother’s shoulder, and he is standing so that his left side favors the camera slightly. The combined effect is to minimize his lopsided chest, to mask the crooked hang of his arm. For three or four years, the family adopts a similar pose, variations coming in the clothes, Helmut’s height, and the gradual graying of his father’s beard. The family looks content, healthier, cheeks plumper than in previous years. For all the artful masking of a son’s disability, they are relaxed. Still proud, still a unit, gradually growing into a kind of prosperity.

Puberty and the Third Reich arrive simultaneously. To Helmut’s shame, not only does he grow hair on his body, but the fluff that should be under his right arm grows higher, more visible, under his collarbone. The strange sinew-twist below the skin on his chest becomes more pronounced as his muscles become more defined.
All boys do gymnastics now at school, but that only makes Helmut’s restricted arm movement more conspicuous. He wears a long-sleeved jersey, not an undershirt like the rest. Some stare at him as they change, still others push into him as they pass in the long school corridors. Most of the time, it is not discussed.

Helmut is good at his studies and has a few friends at school. At home, he still spends most afternoons at the station, usually alone. Some evenings he finds the neighborhood boys in the back court
on his way home. Helmut stands with them a while as they wrestle and joke, and they ask him about the trains but only half listen to his replies. They have joined clubs to which Helmut is not invited, have grown more interested in the gangs and street fights, and licorice isn’t the draw it once was. Occasionally one of the neighbors’ girls will join him on the platform. Edda Biene, waiting by the mail sacks, sucking her long plaits, watching Helmut greet the disembarking passengers, gathering his tickets. The hang of Helmut’s arm has become more pronounced with puberty, and increased prosperity has made the passengers more generous. Helmut knows if he saves for a few days, and takes Edda for an ice cream in the shop next to Gladigau’s, then she might let him hold her hand, or even show him her legs in the stairwell on the way home.

He knows he is fit, feels he has a strong heart and good lungs and swift legs to offer his nation. He also knows he is imperfect.

Helmut has left school now. Other boys go to work, learn trades, but Mutti persuades Papi to let their son stay at home. Just for a while, he’s not ready yet, still just a boy. Helmut’s Papi sighs and agrees.

Mutti takes in washing now, and Helmut does a share of the folding and carrying, but for a year or so, his days are largely spent drifting between station and home. Quiet and content, his head full of timetables. Eating the warm lunches Mutti cooks for him, gazing across the kitchen table to the window with his daydreamer’s faraway eyes.

Papi is irritated by his son’s idle behaviour. At Gladigau’s, business is good. He has new cameras, better film stock, and needs an extra pair of hands. Papi knows this, takes his son aside, suggests he make himself useful. Helmut is eager to please his father, and come the autumn he seizes his chance. Out before breakfast to greet the first train, Helmut finds the pavement glittering with a thick frost of glass. The early crowd pick their way carefully through the shards to the station gates, past Gladigau, whose windows are unharmed, but who stands and stares, pale in the November light. Helmut takes his keys, finds a broom, and sweeps without saying a word, and Gladigau appreciates this. The boy is now the obvious choice.

Papi persuades this time, and Mutti relents. He can work Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons, and also Saturdays, if there are errands to be run. Employer, father, and son work alongside one another: quiet, busy, efficient. Gladigau likes the boy and treats him well, teaching him, nurturing him, though never indulging him.
Helmut likes the darkroom. The soothing sound of the gently running tap, and the alkaline smell of the chemicals. He has the light on only when he is cleaning, likes to mix and load in the red of the safelight or the deep, rich dark. The portraits taken with the big studio camera are Gladigau’s forte, and neither Papi nor Helmut are allowed to touch the sheets once they have been exposed. However, Gladigau also experiments with the new cameras and their long spools of film, and because Helmut is thorough and methodical in his work, he is allowed to process these negatives. He winds the long rolls off patiently, fingers working skillfully without the aid of eyes. He times the baths well, after discussing the exposures with Gladigau, and the old man is pleased and proud of his apprentice’s understanding of the work. Although his employer always makes the prints himself, he does allow Helmut to do experiments of his own with leftover chemicals and discarded negatives. On slow afternoons, when the darkroom is free, Helmut teaches himself to print on scraps of thick photographic paper, which he seeks out of the darkroom shelves and drawers.

In the cupboard in the small back toilet, under the bottles of developer and fixer, Helmut uncovers the American magazines that Gladigau has kept neatly folded in brown paper. The bolt has a screw missing, so Helmut sits with his boot wedged tight against the door. Black-and-white photos of women, draped in veils, in half-light. Helmut does not understand English, but he does understand the references to films, to f-stops, cameras, and lenses. German film and German cameras are the best, he knows, but these American women are very good, too. Rounded stomachs, small breasts, long, wide thighs. Some of the photos have been taken outside, and the women are swimming, their bodies rippling water and light.

When he is not working, Helmut daydreams about his job. The subdued lighting, the running water, his rigid right leg. The white skin of the American women and the loose bolt on the toilet door. At night he conjures the images against his bedroom ceiling as the long, slow freight trains clatter below, a soothing rhythm of sleep.
To the east, new land is found; old land is found again. So many things are better now: brighter, healthier, cleaner. Helmut sees it in his parents’ faces, knows it is enshrined in law. He feels it in his legs as he strides to the station; the freshness of spring and promise of summer tell him: larger, wider, stronger.

He could be called and carried by it, and perhaps even cured.

At eighteen, Helmut goes with three of the neighbors’ boys to the draft board. All of their faces tight, and eyes bright with the adventure that lies ahead. Despite his flushed cheeks, Helmut has a cloud in his belly which he cannot shift. The doctor is not unkind, and Helmut is glad of the private room, the two minutes’ grace he is given to blink back his boy’s tears. The other boys slap him hard on the back, tell him he’ll be in with them next time round. Perfect officer material. They don’t ask him to come and share a schnapps.

He walks home, fast and by the back routes. Imagines each man he sees is on his way to the front, while he is going home to his mother. Helmut locks himself in his box room, stares out of the window, up at the sky over Berlin. He musn’t cry; that would be further humiliation. He knows Mutti is sitting tight and still in the next room, listening, guessing. His fists are balled tight in his blankets, and the windowpane swims shapes before his eyes.

His father is silent for a long time. Helmut listens at the door and hears no sound from either of his parents, hands growing clammy in the dark. When Papi finally speaks, it is a relief. No more wasting time at the station, in daydreams. He is not a child now, not a girl, he needs to start earning his place in the world. Helmut’s father stopped exercising with his son a couple of years ago, and now he tells his wife to stop, too. The ritual has become embarrassing to mother and son. Too physical and too pointless. Mutti feels the loss of daily proximity, but repeats to herself that it is for the best, until she believes it.

Helmut’s parents join the Party; the Führer joins the family portraits on the wall above the sofa. In the first days of war, Helmut’s father finds a well-paying job managing the floor of a new factory on the outskirts of Berlin. Helmut gets a full-time job with Gladigau.

The last family portrait is taken. Helmut is now an adult, after all. Gladigau jokes with Mutti as he sets up the camera. The next pictures will be of a wedding, and the christenings which will follow. Mutti flushes, Papi says nothing, Helmut busies himself with shutting up the shop and closes his ears. The moment passes.

For this last photo, both men stand, father and son, and their wife and mother sits proudly in front of them. Both have one hand on each of her shoulders, and Helmut has his left arm around his father’s back. The encircling warmth of the family.

Since this is their final sitting, Gladigau also takes an individual portrait of Helmut. Captured from the chest up, left shoulder angled toward the camera, his gaze directed up and right of frame by Gladigau’s outstretched finger. Helmut has the trace of a smile around his slim lips, and the downward tilt of his chin makes him look shy, girlish. Though his hair is dark now and combed down with water and some of his father’s pomade, it still has a boy’s curl about it.

Gladigau is pleased with this individual portrait. He props it up against the till as he takes his evening schnapps. Examines the heavy brows, and the pale eyes set deep in their sockets; remembers the boy with the sharp cheekbones and brittle-looking wrists; approves of the calm young man he sees in front of him now. Gladigau selects a plain frame, but one from the top price range, and wraps Helmut’s likeness for his mother to collect.
Mutti sits on the bed and holds the photo on her lap. Stays still like that for half the afternoon, heart beating unexpectedly fast. She covers her son’s right eye and looks only at the left, the eye nearest the camera, and finds the root of her uncertainty there. She thinks it might be the muscles of the lower eyelid, tightening slightly at the moment of exposure. Or perhaps just a trick of the light: the two sharp, white pinpoints in the eye, creating the illusion of pain. Closer inspection of the family picture reveals no such information, so it could simply be that her son, a shy young man, was nervous sitting by himself, for his employer. It was an extravagant gift, after all, and unexpected. And the frame.

The picture is not displayed in the living room, where visitors might see it. His mother keeps it on her bedside table, and later lays it carefully away in a drawer...


From the Trade Paperback edition.
Rachel Seiffert|Author Q&A

About Rachel Seiffert

Rachel Seiffert - The Dark Room

Photo © Charles Hopkinson

RACHEL SEIFFERT's first novel, The Dark Room, was short-listed for the Booker Prize, won the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Prize, and was the basis for the acclaimed motion picture Lore. She was one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2003; in 2004, Field Study, her collection of short stories, received an award from PEN Inter-national. Her second novel, Afterwards, was long-listed for the 2007 Orange Prize, and in 2011 she received the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her books have been published in eighteen languages. Formerly of Glasgow, she now lives in London with her family.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Rachel Seiffert,
Author of THE DARK ROOM


Q: After working in film for a number of years, what drew you to writing? What led you to write THE DARK ROOM?
A:
My film “career” is pretty speckled. I worked as an assistant editor, have edited, written and directed short films, and I also worked for 2 years as a project co-ordinator for an organisation which funds and supports new filmmakers. I wrote alongside all of these jobs, and like this combination: the privacy and freedom of the writing process, the collaboration and contact with other human beings in my working life.
As to what led me to write this novel:
I am half-German. I grew up in England, but was brought up bilingual, holidays and festivals were always celebrated German-style, and we visited Germany very regularly. I have always been close to my German family, despite the distance, and have always been aware of the German part of my identity.
My family was very open with me about the Third Reich and the Holocaust. My mother and her sister, for example, were both very active in the peace movement when I was a child, and so it was important to them both personally and politically that I knew what had happened, what was done.
At primary school, in England, I was bullied for being a “Nazi,” and so from a very young age, I had a strong sense that being German was bad, even before I really knew anything about the Holocaust. The desire to equate German with evil is persistent. Even within Germany, where I now live. There has been a steady rise in right wing violence since reunification and sometimes I hear people talking with despair, asking themselves whether this tendency might not be something inherent within Germans.
I think this is understandable. The scale of the Holocaust is incomprehensible. It is hard to believe that it was committed by human beings, that genocide is made up of millions of individual acts of murder. By naming the Holocaust an act of evil we dehumanize it. In doing so, we express our horror at what was done. But perhaps we also take away the very human element of individual responsibility. Nazis, however sadistic, however incomprehensible their politics and acts, however much they tried to mechanize death/murder, they were also human beings.
This is the seed of the book, as it were; the point of departure into fiction. The three protagonists in the novel offer three different perspectives on or approaches to this same, basic issue.

Q: In researching for this novel, did you, like Micha, the protagonist of Part III, interview many people and spend weeks reading library texts and watching documentaries? Did you run into many of the same difficulties as Micha?
A:
Yes, I spent weeks reading books in libraries and watching documentaries, and spoke a lot with family members. I am not sure what you mean by difficulties. If you are asking whether it was painful, then the answer is yes. There were times when I could only read and not write, and times when I felt I couldn’t read or see any more.
Micha’s task is so painful because it is personal. The process is difficult for him because the things he reads, sees and hears all relate to the grandfather whom he loves so much. His search also hurts his mother, father, grandmother, sister and partner, and so he puts a great deal at risk by placing so much importance on uncovering the past. For Micha, and for those around him, his search does not necessarily bring clarity or certainty, but it certainly brings pain.

Q: Throughout the novel, there are numerous references to photographs, to cameras, and to the process of photography (taking and developing pictures), and to darkrooms. Did you choose this title to perpetuate this reference, and to connect the novel with the process of clarifying things (developing photos) and documenting things (taking photos, keeping photos)? What is the dark room? Why did you choose this title?
A:
As you say, the title plays on the photo theme, but the dark room is also the place where memories and events too painful to recall are kept hidden. For Helmut, it is the uneasiness about the drain of people out of Berlin, the changing shape of his city home. For Lore, it is the unsettling connection between her parents, Tomas, and the photos of the concentration camps. For Micha, and for his family, it is the possibility of guilt lying very close to home.
The photo theme was not a conscious choice. I, like all people born after 1945, have a perspective on the Third Reich and on the Holocaust which is very strongly influenced by photos from the period. I grew up with family stories, and my visual memory bank is also full of family portraits and snapshots, but contemporary press and amateur photos also strongly inform what I know about that time. Mina, one of the characters in the third story, mentions a photo of a small boy taken at the liberation of Bergen Belsen — just one example of the images which are always there in my mind when I think about the Holocaust.
I am not sure that I am comfortable with the idea of my book “clarifying” and “documenting”. For one thing, it is fiction, and I think it is dangerous to lend any work of fiction too much authority. For me, the photo theme is more about the desire to clarify and document, and the impossibility of this process. Helmut’s pictures of the Roma being transported don’t show the full horror of the scene as he experienced it, for example, and Lore dreams about the emaciated bodies she sees in the newspaper photos, but does not understand who they were or who killed them.

Q: You call THE DARK ROOM a novel. What binds the three stories together?
A:
Definitions are difficult. I don’t know how important that is to readers — it will be interesting to find out. I am not really sure what I call The Dark Room. “A novel”, “a novel told in three stories”, just “a book”, maybe. I suppose calling it a novel is convenient because that conveys that is prose fiction.
The word used to define the book is not important to me, but I do consider the book to be not three different stories, but a single, whole piece of fiction.
The stories are distinct, but related thematically. Family, responsibility, denial, love. For me, each informs the other, and this is one reason why it is a novel, a whole. That Micha’s family did not question the past, for instance, can perhaps be appreciated through Lore’s fear of connecting her parents to the crimes she hears people talking about on the trams.
I also don’t think that the significance of the Third Reich and the Holocaust can be appreciated from any one single perspective. Of course, they can’t be appreciated from one single book/novel, either, and certainly not just from mine! However, the idea of multiple perspectives informs my book, and is another reason why I consider it a novel — the three perspectives making one picture (of many). It was important to me that I cover both the Third Reich period and the present day in the book. It was also important that the characters and their stories should not be intertwined. By keeping the characters, stories and periods distinct, I wanted to give the book scope. Many thousands and millions of people in Germany were involved in Nazism, in however small a capacity. I wanted to give the reader a sense of how far the Third Reich reached, and how the repercussions of this period are still felt (and avoided) today.

Q: Helmut's story takes place before and during the war; Lore's story immediately after the war; and Micha's story generations after the war. Besides their particular time and experience, what do each of the three characters symbolize?
A:
Three different, but interrelated perspectives on Nazism.
Broadly speaking, the first section deals with issues of identity and belonging. Helmut wants to be part of the Nazi world, but can’t be. The second part concerns itself with innocence and awareness. Lore took the Nazi ideology for granted and is confronted with the crimes committed (by members of her family) in its name. The last section deals with the continued repercussions of the war and Holocaust on the present day, and tackles the problems of guilt and closure through Micha’s painful investigation of his grandfather’s past.
In the run up to publication, I have been surprised by the number of people who have asked me (both in Germany and abroad) whether people in Germany “still” have not come to terms with the Holocaust/Third Reich. I, in turn, am surprised that this should be a question. Of course, there are many people who say that we should stop talking about it and move on. Of course sometimes you get exhausted. Of course Germany now has a multicultural population, and many of its current citizens have no immediate relationship to the period. But the idea that the question could or should have been dealt with by now is surprising to me. Fifty, sixty years is no time at all in comparison to the scale of the crime. Two, three generations. And each generation, each individual has to find their own perspective. And each individual’s perspective will change through the course of his/her life. I feel we/I have hardly scratched the surface: so little is known of what happened to the Roma, for example, and not nearly enough has been done to investigate the perpetrators” experiences.
Micha especially symbolizes the questions which will not go away. It is a difficult area: Holocaust fatigue is dangerous. I hope my book does not tire the reader.

Q: Lore of Part II is one of the strongest, most memorable characters of the novel. How old is she when she travels across the breadth of Germany, from Bavaria to Hamburg, with her four siblings?
A:
Fourteen. In my head. But if readers think she is thirteen, thirteen and a half, fifteen, doesn’t really matter to me.

Q: Lore's age is just one of the many questions left unanswered in the novel. What happens to Helmut's parents? Was Gladigau Jewish? What happens to Tomas after he leaves Hamburg? Why do you leave these hanging?
A:
I’m afraid I am still going to leave those questions hanging! I’m not particularly fond of explanations — like lots of little dead ends in a story. I would like to let the reader find his or her own answers — I think the book has more life that way.
I have never been published before. It is very exciting to hear different people’s interpretations of the stories/characters. They can be surprising, puzzling, gratifying, irritating. I hadn’t anticipated this, and I really enjoy hearing how the stories I wrote take shape in readers” minds.
In terms of the period which the book concerns itself with:
I think it is important not to adopt an attitude of knowing everything — it is arrogant, and there is still so much left to be heard and said, and so much that we will never know. The generation which experienced and survived the period is dying, and for some members of that generation silence was the only course they were able or willing to take.
I can’t tell people what to think about the Third Reich or the Holocaust.
I can’t explain genocide, anti-Semitism, Facism.
I have written three small stories, from three specific viewpoints, and hope they raise wider questions. To take one of your questions as an example. Helmut doesn’t know what happens to Gladigau — he is just gone. If you, as a reader, ask yourself, was Gladigau Jewish? Then you have to ask yourself — if he was, then what happened to him? For me, answering those questions within the text is like finishing a process for the reader before it has even begun.

Q: What is next for Rachel Seiffert?
A:
Who knows? Not me!


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Praise

Praise

“A novel about the German soul in the twentieth century, this debut work stuns with its simplicity of style and hugeness of subject.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Ambitious and powerful. . . . Seiffert writes lean, clean prose. Deftly, she hangs large ideas on the vivid private experiences of her principal characters [to] form an allegory of the German soul in its passage over eighty years.” —The New York Times Book Review

“[A] probing novel. . . . Seiffert gives us pictures as evocative as they are ghostly....” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Lyrical . . . explores the experience of ‘ordinary’ Germans–the descendents of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers–and poses questions about the country’s psychological and political inheritance with rare insight and humanity.” --The New Yorker

  • The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert
  • December 18, 2007
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $11.99
  • 9780307428363

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