Saturday, April 28, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #118: Voices in the Dark by Marcel Beyer and Ulli Lust

There once was a novel called Flughunde: written by Marcel Beyer in German, published in Germany in 1995. John Brownjohn -- I feel so sorry for someone saddled with that name all his life -- translated it into English, and The Karnau Tapes was published in the UK in 1997.

Almost twenty years later, German cartoonist Ulli Lust adapted Flughunde into comics form -- it was published in 2013 as by Beyer and Lust. And, finally, in 2017, the comics version of Flughunde was reunited with the Brownjohn English translation -- somewhat adapted by Nika Knight to work as comics -- and published under a third title, Voices in the Dark.

(By the way, Flughunde means "Flying Foxes," for an important thematic element of the story -- it's a literary-novel title, and this is a literary "graphic novel." I have no idea why none of the English translations were willing to translate the title.)

That's what this is, but what's it about?

Hermann Karnau is a German sound engineer in WWII. Helga is the eldest of the six children of Joseph Goebbels. He is fictional; she is not -- and, if you might possibly read this book, do not google her first. Trust me.

If you go into Voices in the Dark thinking it's Hermann's story -- and it does appear to be his story; he gets most of the page-time, and the narrative goes deeply into his thinking for long periods -- you'll expect something like The Conversation mixed with Hannah Arendt's famous comment about the banality of evil. Hermann is neurotic and obsessive, and it's not clear for a while quite how twisted those obsessions have made him, until that Nazi machine gives him unexpected opportunities. He records speeches in public, Goebbels in private, sounds of battle on the Eastern front, and then is part of less definable, less sane experiments before being called back to record the last days of the man the narrative only calls "him."

But this is not Hermann's story. It is Helga's, even though she is young and her life constrained. Even though she gets less time on the page, and we don't know as much of her thoughts. Even though we don't meet here until we've seen a lot of Hermann. She's more important -- Hermann is essentially an observer.

I won't talk about the events of Voices in the Dark. It takes place in Germany, during WWII, mostly towards the end, with short scenes set before and after. You can guess at what that could include: you may be right.

Lust tells this story in mostly small, cramped panels -- the white gutters between panels disappear entirely for some scenes, making them that much more intrusive and claustrophobic. Her colors are earth-tones, mostly monochromatic on a single spread -- there are reddish scenes and brown scenes and grey scenes, some oranges and dull greens. And the panels themselves are close-ups more often than expected -- again, tightly focused on this story, as obsessive a viewer as Hermann is a listener, close and constrained and inescapable. It's very appropriate, and I only noticed it in retrospect.

This is not a happy book, or an uplifting one; stories about Nazi Germany rarely are. It is based on a literary novel, and it's pretty literary itself -- concerned with people's deep emotions, and with investigating the extreme things they do, without standing up and making explanations or excuses for them. It's a strong book: I expect it was a strong novel, and Lust has adapted it into a powerful comic.

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