The bush of ghosts

The Dark Room

Rachel Seiffert<em> William Heinemann, 391pp, 12.99</em>

ISBN 009928717

In three novellas spanning 80 years, The Dark Room, shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize, records Germany's coming to terms with the events of the Hitler years through denial, acceptance and understanding. Each story follows the life of a different character. In "Helmut", a baby is born with a muscle missing from his chest. As a small child, his crooked arm - his right shoulder is lower than his left - goes unnoticed. Then, one day, his teacher pulls those in need of "special treatment" out of line. As they huddle together in a corner of the classroom, Helmut finds himself among "the fat boys and the weak boys with bad teeth". Later, rejected by the draft board at the beginning of the war, he finds solace in photography.

As Helmut wanders through Berlin taking pictures of the city as it empties rapidly, chronicling the rounding-up, brutalisation and transportation of Jews, gypsies and those considered unfit to be part of the master race, he is blind to the truth of events. His moral blindness is made even more extreme by his own disability.

The second novella, "Lore", chronicles the journey that Lore and her four siblings, the children of Nazi parents, make to find their grandmother at the end of the war (their mother has been taken away to prison camp). Initially, the family had looked forward to victory; then the Americans arrived in their part of Germany. "Our Fuhrer is dead," the mother tells her crying daughter. "Just think of how he fought for us . . . He was brave."

Disposing of their Nazi brooches to hide their identities, the starving children walk through a zoned Germany, from Bavaria to Hamburg. The only reason that four of the brood manage to make it is because they are helped by Thomas, a kindly stranger.

Everywhere, posters showing photographs of skeleton-like bodies in piles are on display for all Germans to see. They stand muttering: "It's all a set-up . . . the people in the photos are actors. The Americans have staged it all." Later, Lore learns the truth. She also learns that Thomas is travelling with false papers stolen from a Jew in Buchenwald: "He said it didn't matter. The man . . . was dead already."

In the third and final novella, "Micha", a young man wonders why his grandfather did not return from Russia until nine years after the war ended. He believes the only explanation is that he committed war crimes there. He goes to Belarus to find out, pitting himself against his family, and is forced to reconcile happy childhood memories of his grandfather with the knowledge that he was once a member of the Waffen SS, the mobile German killing squad.

Reading The Dark Room is a pure experience, a little like watching a leaf float down a stream. It has a rare and powerful simplicity. There is no humour, suspense or juxtaposition of place and time. It moves simply in one direction. It stands out like an old black-and-white movie amid the techno-whizz of computer animation, high-def and digital broadcasting. Less can definitely be more.

Vicky Hutchings works for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A plan for the world