Child of All Nations

Michael Hofmann points out in the afterword to his new translation of Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations, that he came to Keun via Joseph Roth (a writer he has widely translated into English), Keun having travelled with Roth in exile from Germany between 1936 and 1938. The connection to Child of All Nations is even stronger, it being difficult not to read the novel as a fictionalised account of those times written from the point of view of a child.

Kully, the novel’s narrator, is a young girl who travels Europe with her mother and father having fled their native Germany where her father’s books have been banned. Money is a constant problem and her father is often absent in search of it:

“My father always manages to get hold of money from somewhere. And he always comes back to us too. I don’t think he ever completely forgets about us.”

This is not to say the family live in squalid conditions – instead they exhaust their credit in hotels, the mother often afraid to show herself outside their room while the father searches for a way of paying the bill. They live by borrowing from friends and acquaintances, and on advances for books her father claims to have almost finished but has not yet started. Kully’s awareness of money and the family’s lack of it is often contrasted with her father’s extravagance:

“My father squeezed us into a taxi. I was thinking we could easily have walked home and saved the fare.”

Her father’s spendthrift nature is best demonstrated in the way he constantly loses coins around the room which Kully picks up and threads onto a necklace. One might expect that this might eventually be utilised in an emergency, but in fact her father uses it as a tip when he has no other cash.

As well as being a wonderful insight into life in exile during 1930s Europe, the novel also demonstrates the strengths of using a child narrator. Kully’s generally forgiving attitude to her parents better reveals their characters than the narration of either one would. She accepts her father’s absences and extravagances just as she does her mother’s anxieties. Her stateless existence is everyday life to her, which can make her comments on it both more matter of fact and more moving:

“At first, my father didn’t want us to go to Italy, because Italy is friends with Germany, which makes it a dangerous place to visit. But we are émigrés, and for émigrés all countries are dangerous.”

The high drama of exile is mixed with her own childish adventures, such as when she unwisely acquires two guinea pigs. The perils of moving from city to city come to include the absence of other children to play with.

The novel is slightly weakened by its lack of as natural conclusion. It was first published in 1938 and therefore cannot access either the war’s beginning or end, leaving it with an unfinished feeling. As Hofmann suggests, the journey to America and back seems an unnecessary addition to a novel about European exile, as do its comic aspect and more journalistic tone. Having said that, this remains a clear-sighted glimpse into the world of refugees and a reminder that Europe has its own history of those who have fled from oppression in search of safety.

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One Response to “Child of All Nations”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    oh must try this one ,thanks for sharing ,all the best stu

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