The travels of Kully, a nine-year-old girl in exile from Nazi Germany, have waited an undeserved 70 years for this English translation. Keun’s 1938 novella, written after the author was expelled from Germany for “immoral” depictions of modern young women, gives the child’s perspective as she meanders across Europe with her long-suffering mother and father. It offers an intimately detailed portrait of an impoverished life, and a child’s ignorance of the causes.
Kully understands that her mother has to order expensive food in restaurants to preserve the myth that they are prosperous, and accepts being left as collateral at hotels and restaurants while her father attempts to scrounge money for bills. Her pet tortoises and the question of where her next meal will come from are at the front of her mind, but although she is dimly aware of her parents’ alcoholism and infidelities, Hitler, Mussolini and Chamberlain are no more than names she has overheard in conversation.
Kully is a cheerful, perceptive narrator, and Irmgard Keun’s re-creation of a child’s voice, aided by Michael Hofmann’s nimble translation, rarely descends into whimsy. Child of All Nations offers a plausible, compelling snapshot of an unconventional existence at an extraordinary time.