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Brilliant portrait of early Nazism on a human scale
on June 14, 2011
"You can open an envelope and take out something which bites or stings, though it isn't a living creature. I had a letter like that from Franz today."
This opening line from Sanna was a great hook that brought immediacy and a tenseness that rarely dissipates in this well paced, dramatic portraiture of late 1930's Germany. Sanna is a 19 year girl caught between a desire to be flighty, flirty teenager but confronting the reality of a Germany racing full into its darkest period. Irmgard Keun wrote this story in 1937. It must have taken enormous bravery to do so and intelligence to tell it so well.
What the reader gets is a story about a girl observing and living in a swirl of increasing intolerance and oppression where one must seek out the proper worldview and express it in thought, voice and action. But what if that worldview keeps changing? She gets confused. Race laws increasingly isolate Jews, artists, political opponents. Neighbors race to tattletale to the Gestapo which now supercedes the police. Families wonder where a father or son or friend has disappeared to. Others hope to curry favor and get ahead by spying and pounding out the new "worldview" louder.
The story itself focused on Sanna and her friends affections for boys and men. They don't differentiate by race or religion but only what drives the heart. Around them is a world far less tolerant that they can barely understand. Kuen's ability to give such innocent voices clarity to the reader while not discrediting their character is a neat trick that works well. They can observe and offer insight without sounding outside their own youth and limitations.
The book worked for me as it disposes of the idea that "no one knew" or that "things could have been different". No. The Nazi regime was quickly imposing it's will on the people; divided between fervent followers and those to be sent away. They were aiming towards larger far more violent goals that were inescapable. Kuen brilliantly plays this out by introducing 2 English journalists researching the "new" Germany of which they only see good and can only praise despite all the evidence right before them. It makes a great argument on the ability to live in denial.
It's a short book. Well worth reading.