The Blindness of the Heart

In its original German, the title for The Blindness of the Heart is Die Mittagsfrau, or "The Noonday Witch," invoking a folktale about a witch who appears in the heat of the afternoon to steal children from their distracted parents. In the prologue of Julia Franck's book, a child is not stolen but abandoned by his mother in a train station. Dramatizing a decidedly German civilian experience of World War II, the novel tells us of the mother's life before and during the war, in hopes of explaining her act of abandonment.

 

The mother's name is Helene, and in the first chapter we're taken back in time to her childhood during World War I. Franck's heroine lives under the watch of her older sister, Martha, who sexually molests her in the bed they share at night. Themes of victimization course through the novel, progressing from subtle to aggressive after the sisters move to Berlin. Emotionally abandoned by Martha, Helene falls in love with a good man named Carl, but he is quickly dispatched by a tragic accident. Excellently rendered into English by Anthea Bell, Franck's description of Helene's desperate loneliness cuts to the bone with devastating effect. Men, in particular, are dangerous predators, taking advantage of her isolation; when an older man tries to rape her, Helene imagines her body as an anatomical model, "a torso where the heart beat without any head, without the capacity to think. Limbs had lost their meaning with their function."

 

Helene's inability to protect herself reflects the impotency of the German nation, victim to Hitler and his evil regime. In a powerful scene after Helene has been abandoned by her eventual husband because she is half-Jewish, she and her son Peter go foraging for mushrooms in the woods and come upon an escaped prisoner. Unraveled by his wild-eyed stare, Helene stumbles off, watching Peter look for her from afar. "Helene stuffed mushroom after mushroom into her mouth. How nice it was to be alone, chewing in peace." She must remove herself from the glare of the prisoner—his face is a mirror in which she sees herself. This encounter is the straw that breaks the camel's back: a few days later Helene will take Peter to the train stain and abandon him there—bringing us back to the events of the prologue.

 

Though Helene is closer to us than any other character, the novel is written in the third person, and Helene grows more and more detached as the war rages on. Her observations become eerily similar to ours, like a reader looking into a narrative he or she cannot control. Helene's heart is not blind; it's numb. The novel is not a justification of her actions, but something more complex—a portrait of the unheroic but human need for escape.

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