German Book Prize-winning novelist Julia Franck’s most recent work, Back to Back, is an extremely difficult book to read. This is not an issue of translation, or a comment on Franck’s narrative powers. The prose of Anthea Bell’s translation is brisk, bold, and clear; in Bell’s hands, Franck’s story is engrossing—immediately, completely. But the neglect and deprivation, emotional and sexual abuse, and tragedy and despair visited upon Back to Back’s two young protagonists make the act of reading this masterful novel painful. For Thomas and Ella, siblings growing up in communist East Berlin in the 1950s, misery isn’t merely episodic, like bad weather or strep throat. The definitive experience of these characters is one of nearly constant anguish.
Watching such suffering unfold in Anthea Bell’s unsparing translation is all the more wrenching because of how bright and loving these children are, particularly at the story’s start. Early in the novel, when Käthe is away for two weeks, her children Thomas and Ella, (then ages ten and eleven), grow bored of boiling potatoes, going to school, and looking out for themselves as usual. So they decide to clean the house. They scrub the kitchen floor; wash and polish the door frames and handles; shine the chandelier; dust the books; wash and iron the curtains and tablecloths; beat the carpets, and scour the bathtub. When their mother returns, the children have arranged flowers on the table, and there’s hot homemade soup on the stove. Ella even tucks a note, drawn in red crayon, in her mother’s napkin: “a heart . . . and then two smaller, intertwined hearts inside it.” They wait for her attention as she rustles through the mail. When Käthe sits down for dinner—without a comment on the condition of the house—and opens her napkin, the note flutters to the floor before she notices it. There’s more. Franck saves the full emotional impact of Käthe’s lack of feeling for the end of the joyless meal:
Käthe drained her glass and opened the newspaper that she had put on the chair beside her before supper. You can wash the dishes, I’m going down to the studio. One of you can take the dog for a walk.
Silence for a minute, two minutes. Were those going to be her last words?
Watching her expectant children register the full measure of their mother’s callousness is devastating. Is this woman straight out of Grimm’s fairy tales? It’s not that Käthe doesn’t love her children. She does love them in her way, perhaps even deeply. But her own life’s early hardships have taken their toll. (Käthe’s full story, the story of how the daughter of a prominent German Jewish family stayed alive through WWII and wound up back in East Berlin, alone with two children—the story of another generation’s heartbreak and repression—requires another book.) She is a woman who survives on her political and artistic ideals alone. She is incapable of showing Thomas and Ella small kindnesses, or it seems, of noticing their emotional needs at all. Her own unflagging instinct for self-preservation obscures her vision unforgivably.
Pretty, dreamy Ella bears the worst of it, first at the hands of Käthe’s boyfriend Eduard and then in the repeated cruel assaults of a boarder who calls himself Fritz. Does Käthe know? Could she possibly care? Käthe is scornful of any sign of weakness in her daughter, so Ella tells only Thomas of the boarder creeping into her room at night. For sensitive Thomas—the poet, the vegetarian, the little brother afraid of the dark—misery comes in the form of a sense of purposelessness. He is powerless to protect his sister, and powerless, in Käthe’s home, in the Communist state, to truly build a life of his choosing. He thinks he might become a journalist, traveling the world and chronicling its wonders. But Käthe has other ideas for him—to work in a quarry. Then study geology:
You could do this and that, huh, you must be joking! You want, you, want, and your enthusiasm makes you blind. No one can do that. And I’ll tell you something; it’s obscene to tell people about the giant turtles on the Galapagos Islands while they’re standing in factories here making your shoelaces for you.
Thomas goes to work in a quarry but it doesn’t agree with him. He’s hazed and tormented. He gets shingles, returning home covered in red and yellow blisters. Käthe urgently hatches another plan for her son—with the pulling of a few political strings, he’s on his way to medical school. But something has broken in Thomas. At the hospital he promptly falls in love with a woman named Marie. She too, is trapped in an abusive home—her husband beats her and, worse, manipulates her by controlling her access to her daughter. For a time, Thomas and Marie find solace in each other’s company, if not hope for the future.
Read as a parable about repressive politics, the waste and cruelty of Back to Back seems to serve a brutal, allegorical purpose. Käthe has entirely internalized party rhetoric and ideals, effectively securing her livelihood and safety but leaving her children with next to nothing—no innocence, no hopes or dreams, no real opportunity, and no solace, either. The destruction that unfolds in her family under Käthe’s watch appears to be a direct indictment of the institutions she represents. But the truth about this book is more uncomfortable than that. Back to Back is based closely on the real lives of Julia’s mother, uncle, and grandmother. “I didn’t invent any of the facts in the novel,” Franck says. In reality, Back to Back is the story of her mother’s childhood, as told to Franck as a little girl. The structure, pacing, dialogue and scene-setting are the product of Franck’s literary imagination, but the characters and plot are built from true events of her family history. Haunting poems written by Franck’s uncle (Thomas) as a young man heighten the book’s emotional intensity even more, blurring the line between fiction and history:
A grisly sound cries out in the night
A tooth grates on deep sand;
I climb form my grave—
And the vapors it gave—
With bloodstained rags on foot and hand,
And laughed as a madman might.
In a recent interview with the British nonprofit Booktrust, Franck describes her memories of growing up in East Germany in the ’70s—what it was like to live under an oppressive government, knowing that your neighbors, friends, and teachers were spying on you. The psychological toll of living behind the Berlin Wall is one she conveys powerfully in Back to Back. But she goes further. The world she chronicles in the novel is one of many shades of gray, a place where violence radiates outward from its immediate victims to shatterlives once- or twice- removed from the original harm. Franck explains:
In Germany there is almost no way to think of someone as anything more complex than a victim and a good human being; it turns out to be complete provocation to think of someone who is not only Jewish but a cold mother ‘too’—or of someone who is not only a survivor of a refugee camp, but is also perversely attracted by innocence, in a sexual way and abuses, children.
In her writing, it is these conflicted intersections—the places where victim and abuser, fact and fiction, ideology and reality, and of course, personal and political, overlap—that Franck sets out to capture. In Back to Back, the effect is powerful. “The ghosts of Germany’s past still live among us,” says Franck. This truth is what makes the novel so piercing.