February 9, 2008
When the reliable Penguin Classics imprint thinks a new translation of a 1938 German novel has enough potential to be issued in hardback, I have to pay attention. When the translation is by the equally reliable Michael Hofmann (a poet in his own right), then my wallet sighs open with pleasure. A bibliophile and his money are soon parted.
Irmgard Keun was the partner of novelist Joseph Roth for the last few years of his life: I’ve only dabbled in Roth with his novella The Legend of the Holy Drinker, but the testimonies of Susan Hill and dovegreyreader promise much more pleasure to be had from him yet (and dgr has already mentioned Irmgard Keun on this very site). Of course, a romantic connection with a fine writer doesn’t mean that Keun’s book will be good too: it must be just a coincidence, then.
Child of All Nations  on the face of it sounds like pretty uninspiring stuff: a family flee Nazi Germany and seek peace elsewhere in Europe. Heard it all before. But what sets Keun’s novel apart is the uniquely charming voice of Kully, the nine-year-old narrator.
The danger of a child narrator is that the author can make it too cute, too disingenuous, or two-dimensional. Fortunately Kully is none of these things, but gets her point across:
When I was in Germany, before, I did go to school, and that’s where I learned to read and write. Then my father didn’t want to be in Germany any more, because the government had locked up friends of his, and because he couldn’t write or say the things he wanted to write and say. I wonder what the point is of children in Germany still having to learn to read and write?
Now her father is away raising money to enable them to continue their journey, and Kully and her mother are in Amsterdam, trying to stave off the day when they have to pay their hotel bills (“I get funny looks from hotel managers, but that’s not because I’m naughty; it’s the fault of my father … the waiters 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”).
Kully recounts their journeys across Germany, the Netherlands and France, with Keun meanwhile probing gently at the major issues surrounding the story. Reading it in the comfortably informed 21st century, it’s easy to forget that Child of All Nations was written when the worst of the Nazi terror was yet to come: this makes it seem both prescient and retrospectively wise. There is a postmodern sort of dramatic irony in operation: not only does the reader know more than the narrator, the reader knows more than the author. On the subject of contemporary politics Kully’s father has this to say:
‘As for fear of God? Why? Why not trust in God? I’d rather my little girl worshipped matchboxes or liqueur glasses than that she be afraid of God. Everything that’s wrong in the world begins with fear. All that mess in Germany could only result because the people there have lived in fear for ever. … First a father demands that his child be afraid of him. Then there’s school and fear of the teacher, fear of God at church, fear of military or other superiors, fear of the police, fear of life, fear of death. Finally, the people are so crippled and warped by fear that they elect a government that they can serve in fear. Not content with that, when they see other people who are not set on living in fear, the get angry, and try in their turn to make them afraid. First of all they make God into a kind of dictator, and now they don’t need Him any more, because they’ve come up with a better dictator themselves.’
Child of All Nations is very funny too, from the authorial distance from her child narrator which enables Keun to invoke some witty irony, to Kully’s father’s bold way of trying to persuade people, and in particular women (all of whom, he feels, are susceptible to his charms). Here I saw reflections of Roth’s Holy Drinker Andreas, and his doomed attempts to stave off the loss of his money.
The one disappointment is the ending, or more accurately the last leg of the family’s journey. It damages the scale of the drama, and (as Hofmann acknowledges in his afterword) “breaks the claustrophobia of the book.” But this doesn’t matter too much – Child of All Nations is all about the journey, not the destination, and that is a very fine experience indeed.