The Dark Room is comprised of three novellas joined by setting and theme, but with completely different characters (I’m not really impressed when something touted as a novel contains three lengthy short stories, but that’s just a personal hang-up). The first part, “Helmut”, tells the story of a young photographer’s apprentice in Germany during World War II. Helmut meticulously documents the disappearance of people from Berlin, and witnesses many of the horrors of the holocaust through his camera’s lens, yet is ultimately unable to connect with the people in his photographs, who are merely numbers in his ledger – a precursor to depersonalizing statistics to come. I must admit, I didn’t find the first story overly compelling, for Helmut’s lack of empathy is too easily mirrored on the part of the reader. Fortunately, the stories improve, and the realizations of the later stories enrich the first one.
The second story, “Lore”, tells the story of Lore and her 4 siblings, who must cross occupied post-war Germany to reach their Oma in Hamburg. Lore’s parents are imprisoned for Nazi war crimes, leaving the children to fend for themselves. They must struggle to find food and travel illegally, and Lore bears the heavy burden of her younger siblings, while she struggles to understand recent events and her parents involvement. (As an aside, I couldn’t help but remember a novel I read in the third or fourth grade, Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt, where a young girl had to care for her siblings on the road.) Unlike Helmut, Lore starts to understand the possibility of evil, and realizes that her parents may have been involved, though she has difficulty reconciling these budding realizations with the parents she remembers.
In the third story, the budding awareness that has been developing between the different characters is fully realized, as “Micha”, a young man in the present day, struggles to determine whether or not his grandfather had killed people during his time in the SS. Whereas most of Micha’s family would rather not know, he becomes obsessed with finding out, travelling even to Belarus, where he meets an old man who had turned on his people and joined the Nazis. For me, this was the most important story in the collection, for it asks us what allowances are to be made in times of great violence. It also questions whether someone who killed could still be a good person. Can a man who killed still love his wife, play with his grandchildren, have an honest career? Can we be defined solely by our actions, even in times of war? Must most importantly, this story forces us to reconsider love, which may be more conditional than we would like to believe.
Seiffert’s writing is restrained, some would say sparse, and initially I found it off-putting (favouring what some would call overwraught writing like I do), but I gradually started to appreciate this restraint not only as appropriate for the content, but as another way, maybe the only way, for a German to look back on this dark period in history. For this is not so much a novel about the holocaust, but about its legacy in German history and the German psyche. It is not only about the persistence of humanity in the face of atrocity, but the difficulties in seeing atrocity’s face.