Year by year, the borders of Europe continue to be redrawn, and in the ever-expanding EU, movement between countries becomes increasingly free. As such, the first English translation of Irmgard Keun’s 1938 novel Child of All Nations has come at an appropriate time. This is the story of Kully, the nine-year old daughter of a German writer forced into exile due to his opposition to the Nazi regime. For the most part, she lives with her mother in a transient state, chased from country to country by expiring visas. Meanwhile, her father travels ever more widely in his attempts to sell his work and fund his family’s movements and his own bar tabs.
Keun has created a memorable narrator in Kully, whose child’s-eye view of Europe at a time of escalating crisis results in a narrative that offsets its sense of innocence with frequent worldly aphorisms. ‘Cars are much more dangerous than lions,’ she says, ‘and they need to be very carefully controlled because they always feel like charging at people.’ And more poignantly, ‘My mother is a great example of how difficult it is for a woman who has to get by on just one man.’ Indeed, Kully sometimes displays a precocity that might seem unconvincing were it not for the circumstances that have induced it, and which lends great charm to the prose.
But her account is also flecked with sadness. The novel is in fact somewhat prophetic in the way that death and the fear of death have subtle but definite presences. Kully treats the death of her uncle and a man’s suicide calmly; she deals better with death than the novel’s older characters. ‘When I’m grown up, I want to be dead too, but there’s a lot of time ‘till then’, she says, but this particular aphorism may not be so wise; this is a portrait of a child being forced to grow up very quickly.
Child of All Nations is very much a European novel; Kully’s life of constant relocation takes her to Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris, and Marseilles, Italy and beyond. The snapshot descriptions we are given of these places are sufficient to render each one distinctively, but it is the location of the journey that weighs more heavily on the narrative. Even when Kully and her family are settled in each city, continual movement is found in the brief scenes and the petty dilemmas that they frequently contain. Kully is reprimanded by a policeman for walking into traffic, for example, or she loses her father in a restaurant.
At its core then, this is a novel about exile, and borders. There is a recurring sense of claustrophobia which reflects the temporary confinement the characters experience in each country they end up in, trapped until they have the money to move away or the permission to be somewhere else. At one point Kully is shunned by a group of German children she meets: ‘You’re not a proper emigrant, you’re not even Jewish,’ she is told, ‘You’re luxury emigrants.’ Much of Kully’s father’s struggle is caused by his insistence that they stay in classy hotels and eat in expensive restaurants. But there are too many restrictions impeding their lifestyle for it the experiences to be anything resembling luxury.
Irmgard Keun was living in exile from Germany when she wrote Child of All Nations, and her seemingly effortless renderings of each location reflect this first-hand knowledge. Translator Michael Hofmann’s afterword provides an interesting context. We learn here that Keun travelled in Europe with Joseph Roth towards the end of his life, and that he may well be the basis for Kully’s father. If this is the case, then it might seem curious that Keun’s first person voice aligns her with the child dependant on the émigré writer, rather than the adult woman who is involved with him. However, the writing is strong enough that the relationship between Kully’s parents is conveyed clearly – yet Kully’s innocence is never forgotten.
Child of All Nations is a text to be valued for what it reveals about the emigrant situation during the Third Reich, and beyond this, for how it historically contextualises the emigrant experience. Although it is a short novel that provides only an impressionistic account of its incidents and locations, it nonetheless delivers a densely painted picture of a Europe on the brink of conflict. Very much an example of less is more, this is a novel in which every sentence tells us exactly what we need to know; the clean prose is a pleasure to read but we are never left longing for more. Hofmann’s translation is to be welcomed for widening the potential audience for this engaging book, which has ‘till now been unfairly overlooked by translators.