Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun
I first stumbled across the writing of Irmgard Keun in 2013, when I picked up her book “After Midnight” in (old) Foyles as it sounded excellent. It was, and I reviewed it here, and was keen to read more of her work. “Child of All Nations” came my way via ReadItSwapIt shortly after, but it’s taken the impetus of WIT month to get me to pick it up…
The book is translated by Michael Hofmann, who’s also responsible for many translations of Joseph Roth and he provides a useful afterword too. The story is told from the point of view of Kully, a nine-year old girl who’s leading anything but a conventional life. Her father is a writer, and he and her mother and Kully herself are on the move in 1930s Europe (the book was published in 1938). They cannot return to Germany because Kully’s father is obviously persona non grata because of his writing and his views.
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 read and write?
However, the family is a very dysfunctional one: Kully’s father is permanently penniless, and he drags the girl and her mother from place to place trying to borrow from friends and acquaintances, get advances on books or payments for articles. Often the two females are left behind in a hotel as a kind of surety while he goes off to get cash – how he ever manages to write is a mystery! And sometimes the absences are longer ones, and you find yourself reading between the lines and suspecting there are other women involved.
The family is constantly shifting location, taking in Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris, Marseilles and Italy amongst other places, and all the time there is the threat of starvation and their political enemies. Finally, Kully’s father decides to try his hand across the Atlantic and here things take a stomach-churning turn. The end is suitably ambiguous and it is unclear whether this fractured family will ever be whole.
In the morning when we woke up, the whole world was different. The sky was three times as big and three times as high as anywhere else, and it was such a brilliant blue that it hurt your eyes. We passed bare-looking mountains with strange black and silver trees growing on them.
Using a child as a narrator is always going to carry risks, but I felt that Keun got the tone just right. Kully is an engaging companion in this story, innocent and yet knowing, and Keun cleverly has her reveal more than she knows without realising it. As adult readers we recognise the meanings of events that Kully does not, and Keun handles this element brilliantly. The girl is remarkably self-reliant, yet vulnerable at the same time, over-reaching herself and getting into scrapes. And because she’s a child, people talk freely in front of her thinking that she doesn’t understand or isn’t listening, when of course she’s a remarkably sharp observer.
“Child of All Nations” was an excellent portrait of the dispossessed of Europe during the 1930s. All through the book the shadow of what was to come is lurking in the background and of course we know what Keun could not, i.e. what would hit Europe in 1939. If I had a criticism to make it would be that the American section somehow seems a little unnecessary and doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the book. Despite this, however, I got very attached to Kully and her story and I definitely want to read more of Keun’s work.