The Blind­ness of the Heart

Julia Franck; Anthea Bell, trans.
  • Review
By – August 31, 2011
Helene Wursich’s Ger­man life encom­pass­es two world wars and the years sur­round­ing them. How did the peo­ple and events touch­ing and swirling around her deter­mine the dra­mat­ic sto­ry that led to her own even­tu­al blind­ness of the heart?”

The read­er is imme­di­ate­ly drawn into this fore­bod­ing, relent­less, psy­cho­log­i­cal, emo­tion­al, and notable saga. Julia Franck’s first nov­el to be trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish is based on her father’s real-life child­hood abandonment. 

We become involved and fas­ci­nat­ed with the com­pli­cat­ed Helene as she grows up in a small Ger­man town. She is the daugh­ter of a respect­ed print­er and a for­eign” (Jew­ish) moth­er who suf­fers from men­tal ill­ness and a blind­ness of the heart.” This is a blind­ness Helene and her sis­ter, Martha, hate and hope nev­er to emu­late. Helene aspires to be a doc­tor, but learns the print­ing busi­ness as the reces­sion takes hold, watch­es her father die of World War I wounds, and even­tu­al­ly becomes a nurse. She moves to Berlin and lives with­in a sophis­ti­cat­ed and par­ty­ing soci­ety where drugs and sex abound. She finds her­self a dis­tant onlook­er and moral­ly apart from this world. 

While the book deeply engages in Helene’s indi­vid­ual sto­ry, world events that fuel and guide her life are often only allud­ed to and serve as sub­tle back­drops hov­er­ing over Helene’s sto­ry. Exact years are not usu­al­ly men­tioned, but his­tor­i­cal clues move the read­er through the decades. Helene wit­ness­es and notes in detail the dis­turb­ing events around her, but she does so with­out pass­ing judg­ment or engag­ing in any active par­tic­i­pa­tion. She doesn’t seem to grasp or under­stand the enor­mi­ty of these events and her per­son­al choices.

How do ordi­nary peo­ple sur­vive mon­strous times? How do they find solace, solu­tions, and val­i­da­tion? What real­ly dri­ves Helene to her final betray­al? The book’s dra­mat­ic and shat­ter­ing pro­logue and epi­logue skill­ful­ly por­tray the blind­ness of the heart.”

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions