It is easy to see why The Blind Side of the Heart won the German Book Prize. Julia Franck's novel, based on her own father's life, is one of the most haunting works I have ever read about 20th-century Germany. Its distinction is Franck's ability to explore intergenerational trauma in a totally fresh way – as if the 39-year-old author had lived through two world wars and returned as a witness.
Helene is the daughter of a Jewish mother and an Aryan father. Brought up in Saxony she, and her sister Martha, suffer the consequences of their father's war injuries and their mother's mental illness. Both escape poverty and enjoy a freer life with their decadent Jewish aunt in Weimar Berlin.
What is so clever about Franck's characters and plotting is that she shows the women maturing without any sense of political awareness. Although they see Lotte Lenya in Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera, the larger political struggle, between Communism and Nazism, hardly touches them. The rise of Hitler is so understated that its gathering momentum gives the book a compulsive charge.
Franck starts the story from Helene's son Peter's point-of-view. The child sees his mother being gang-raped but has no idea what the half-naked Russian soldiers are doing to her. He tries to piece together his parents' broken marriage by reading his father's letters but absorbs only fragments. The first chapter ends with Peter's terrible abandonment in 1945 at the railway station. This seemingly unpardonable act sets up the mystery of Helene's behaviour. What is so astonishing is the creation of a protagonist who appears to feel so very little. Helene's inner death is constructed carefully and offers us a heroine so complex and attractive that her contradictions jump off the page
In the l960s, Helene returns to seek out her adolescent son, who has been sent to his father's brother, just as she was sent to her mother's sister. But whereas Helene thrived away from her mother, Peter narrows into hate. This awful cycle is written with deep knowledge of emotional deprivation and shows the generational damage which continues in the European memory.
Although the setting is bleak, Franck's narrative has moments of wild humour. The author is outstanding in her observation of Helene's excruciating marriage to the pro-Nazi engineer Wilhelm, and the way she writes about sex reveals not only a world where fascism takes place in the bedroom, but also that a woman can escape what is happening to her physically by going elsewhere in her head.
There are breathtaking chapters, as when Helene runs innocently into the woods to pick mushrooms only to become aware of a stinking train on the tracks. She thinks that the stench must be from rotting cattle. Only when she sees an escaped prisoner does she make the connection between her own life and who is inside the trucks on the journey east. The book's moral perspective is faultless, as is Franck's sensitivity to character, sexuality and the struggle to be a free woman in a fascist society. The Blind Side of the Heart is a masterpiece, in an exquisite translation by Anthea Bell.