Knowledge is bliss indeed but at times, it can turn out to be a blizzard that ruffles the feathers you have carefully arranged throughout your life. And it may take the rest of your time to gather the scattered feathers you dearly loved. Overweening desire to uncover precious truth creates varied versions of new age Oedipus in our period as well. Rachel Seiffert‘s THE DARK ROOM collects such unique stories. Arkaprabha Biswas tries to find a plausible pattern in them.
Suppose, one fine morning you wake up only to know that your father is a murderer. Or your brother once tried to rape a teenager. What will you do? Leave your apartment? Deny your bloodline? THE DARK ROOM hits exactly at this point. Every day we are living with many close unknown faces, and we prefer those faces to remain unknown in patches. Why so? Because knowing can be dangerous. Every one of us has a ‘dark room’ inside. And often, many dark rooms too. We enter each room with a special key. And we don’t often like one to know about all the keys. Thus, even the ones closest to us easily become trespassers to many such rooms. Because rooms are meant to be shared with someone and not by others.
This Vintage War Series edition tells the story of three ordinary Germans at three points of time (all of them are some way or the other related to or affected by the second world war): three time frames, three anxieties, three questions and one disturbing point. Yes, the war. First comes Helmut, a young photographer of Berlin in the 1930s who also seems to be a ferroequinologist by passion. He is not biologically normal, and consequently lacks an active friend circle to run and play and fight and jump. Always fascinated by trains and their schedules, he gradually grows a knack for the daily chores of trains coming and going. He photographs to express patriotic fervour at the juncture of the two wars. So can you expect a straight line graph here? No, not at all. THE DARK ROOM won’t let you be in a stability. It is often blurred, unsettled, and at times, throws challenges directly on the face of the characters, and consequently, on the readers. And you chance to feel the struggle of the characters every now and then. Helmut not only goes through the deepest troubles (read, life risks) to capture the best possible snap of his life, he also takes you along, where photography itself becomes the language of unrest.
‘…The city behind him is destroyed and soon to be divided. In a matter of days, a suicide will speed the Soviet invasion; the small mound of broken building beneath his feet will mark the line between what is British, what is French; and Helmut will not recognise his childhood home in the Berlin which is to come. But in this photo, Helmut is doing something which he never did in any of the many pictures lovingly printed by Gladigau over the course of his childhood. Helmut is standing high on his rubble mountain, over which Soviet tanks will roll with ease, and he is smiling’.
The second story is about Lore, a 12-year-old girl who, in 1945, guides her young siblings across a devastated Germany after her Nazi parents are seized by the allies. Again a deep breath and struggle– a struggle to flee, a struggle to survive, a struggle through the trenches. To me, Lore becomes the Malala Yusuf of ‘the dark room’.
And last but not least, comes a story of fifty years later– when Micha, a young teacher is seen to be obsessed with his re-discovery of his grandpa’s Nazi act at the Jewish concentration camp. But, is the truth always worth knowing? THE DARK ROOM always presses you to such a discomfort zone, where you are tantalized by the gradual discovery of the truth, and then see a BANG! You suddenly wish the unknown to remain unsolved. You feel uneasy. You feel ashamed. You feel disgusted. And then you learn to simply adjust and stay near to that dear criminal. It is not about loving or supporting a sinner, but about denying to leave him amidst his sins. Micha knew that his opa (grandpa) killed the Jews. He guessed it right. And he blamed the deceased opa. But is that the way to end the story?
THE DARK ROOM pushes you to a further interrogation. It is about tracing all of those fault lines, left behind, unknown, suppressed, and hidden. History can take you back to incidents of the past, even make you hate the sinner but does it let you embrace the victims? These are the questions that Rachel pushes you towards. And it remains an eternal path of repentance.
‘…You look at things differently. Everyone does. You loved your opa. You found out something terrible about him, maybe you feel like you can’t love him now. You have to cry about that.’
Three stories. Three time frames. Three moods. That’s how it is. Each story prepares you for another time lapse. And the last part is certainly a masterstroke. In fact, the novel could have been equally brilliant with the final story only.
Title photo by Kristine Klein
Next post on 21st January.