15th Nov 2011
After Midnight by Irmgard Keun
Quietly startling and painfully heart-rending, Keun’s After Midnight is a simple story of a series of small but genuinely tragic events and had me in tears long before I’d reached its finale.
The narrator’s engagement with the book’s beautifully rendered array of characters is gentle and haunting. Her attention is focused upon a small collection of ordinary people whose lives are unalterably distorted by the grand narrative of Nazism.
The overwrought atmosphere is tangible from the opening line: ‘You can open an envelope and take out something which bites or stings, though it isn’t a living creature.’
As the action develops it reads like a slow dream of insanity drifting over the ordinary people of Germany, settling and slowly suffocating normality, transforming the once familiar world into a nightmare of confusion and chaos.
Sanna, the naïve 19-year-old narrator, is there to observe, to tell stories and paint pictures of the characters around her. That many of them do not appear to notice her presence adds to the unreal impression of the narrative.
Against this haze of brooding emotion, images leap forth with vividity – Franz’s red scarf, or sickly little Berta Silias who falls to her death whilst standing upon a table in an ale house, wild with excitement, desperately chanting a poem in honour of the Fuhrer and clasping a bouquet of flowers.
Whilst the language is simple and beautiful, there is a frenzied element to this book, as the slow-moving action is heightened and propelled by an overpowering sense of fear. In Keun’s world, love and politics have the same vicious power to confound and devastate their victims.
It is a love story, as much as anything, though love between the members of this ‘nefarious gang’ of upstanding citizens: Jews, Arians with Jewish lovers and outlawed artists who have offended against the Third Reich, is rendered in the language of crippling sickness.
Sanna’s brother’s wife Liska is in love with an outspoken enemy of the regime named Heini who steadfastly refuses to notice her. When he says, without thinking: ‘I can’t stand that obtrusive poster-like style of health… Liska instantly turns pale, powders her face till she’s even paler, thinks her back and her stomach hurt, and looks sick and tired.’ Liska later says: ‘I’d have plucked one of my eyes out with my own hands just to hear a single word of love from him.’
Sanna herself is in love with her cousin Franz, a touchingly gentle boy with comforting shoulders and long arms, who says very little. When Sanna leaves his home and the home of her aunt because she fears for her life, he spends all his time and wages setting up a small tobacconist’s shop for the two of them to live in.
Informed on as a dissenter by a rival shop owner, he is locked away by the Gestapo and his best friend is killed. Upon his release he returns to find his shop mutilated and smashed, the walls daubed with paint. He goes in search of the informer and strangles him.
At this stage, the novel and its action and the emotions of its characters become enveloped in a blanket of numbness. Lyrics of lingering love songs twist through the narrative, strengthening it and highlighting its increasing sorrow as they become more and more disjointed from the action.
Madness takes over and the end of the book is governed by chaos: weeping and laughter rule. This brief and deeply powerful volume is an example of the profound power of fiction to evoke the horrors of historical atrocity in not only vivid but beautiful language.
Other recommended reading: Keun’s Gilgi – One of Us or The Artificial Silk Girl.