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Thursday, May 17, 2012

"Child of all Nations" by Irmgard Keun (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

 


"Kully knows some things you don't learn at school. She knows the right way to roll a cigarette and pack a suitcase. She knows that cars are more dangerous than lions. She knows that you can't enter a country without a passport or visa. And she knows that she and her parents can't go back to Germany again. But there are also things she doesn't understand, like why there might be a war in Europe--just that men named Hitler, Mussolini, and Chamberlain are involved. Little Kully is far more interested in where their next meal will come from and the ladies who seem to buzz around her father. Meanwhile she and her parents roam through Europe from country to country as their visas expire, money runs out, and hotel bills mount"

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "Child of all Nations" by Irmgard Keun, translated by Michael Hoffman, is a novel I found about at Goodreads after reviewing some recent translations; a check of the sample and the first few paragraphs were just irresistible for me and I bought and read the book in an evening.

"I get funny looks from hotel managers, but that’s not because I’m naughty; it’s the fault of my father. Everyone says: that man ought never to have got married.

At first they treat me as if I was a rich lady’s Pekinese. The chambermaids make kissy mouths at me and little mwah mwah noises. The maître d’ slips me postage stamps, which I save, because I might be able to sell them later. The man in the lift lets me press the button to our floor, and he doesn’t interfere, much. And the waiters brandish table-napkins at me in a friendly sort of way. But all that comes to an end when my father has to leave to raise money, and my mother and me are left behind, and the bill still hasn’t been paid. We are left behind as surety, and my father says we’ve got as much riding on us as if we’d been fur coats or diamonds.

Then the waiters in the hotel restaurant no longer brandish their napkins in that jolly way; instead they flick them at our table. Mama says they do it to clear the crumbs away, but it looks to me more like what you do to keep away pesky cats that have their eyes on the roast."
 
And so it goes, and Kully's narration of her European and later even American wanderings interspersed with quotes and letters from her father continue at a fast clip in the same funny, somewhat ironic style which shows the insecurities of the child that has no home and the despair of the exile grown-up artist and writers who paradoxically have only reputation to sustain them so they need to live expensively to maintain their credit, while scrambling to pay their latest bills and staying just ahead of the creditors on scarcer and shorter temporary visas.

No wonder that for most suicide became the only rational option - a little research about the book and the people hinted at during Kully's narration shows that clearly - and death is always accompanying Kully who for the most part makes a game about it. But not always as the following paragraph shows:

"Grown-ups were trying to tell me how it’s possible to go to heaven. I hate it when people have such a low opinion of children that they think they’ll believe anything they’re told. What person in their right mind would stay in the world with worries and strife if he could be in heaven instead, and it not even cost any money?

Nor do I believe that bad people go to hell. Bad people are much too canny to do bad things if they knew they would go to hell as a result."


Like EM Remarque's better known novels of exile, this novel had a visceral appeal to me and that trumped the occasional niggles - the narrative stalls here and there and Kully's voice seems a bit too "wise" on occasion.

Noting that the book was written in 1938, there clearly could not be any definite ending to it, but still as we turn the last pages we are left with the hope that somehow Kully and her family will find their safe "port", though we rationally know that their travails are only beginning as Hell is just getting unleashed in its full dimension across most Europe.

Highly, highly recommended.

 

2 comments:

Jamie Gibbs said...

Wow, it sounds like a powerful read. I've not read much in the way of period pieces from that time, but it sounds like one to keep an eye out for. Thanks :)

Liviu said...

The book was reissued in 2010 and when I looked through it I did not even know that it was written in 1938, I thought it's been recently written as you do not really realize its age from the content

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