When Rachel Seiffert was growing up in Oxford in the seventies, she was bullied for being German. "Even before I knew what a Nazi was, I knew they were bad and that all Germans were Nazis," she says.
"Oxford is very multicultural, partly because of the university, and I remember I always wanted to be another kind of foreigner -- so long as it wasn't German -- so I could be a good foreigner rather than a bad one."
Dressed in a dark denim shift dress with a brown clip holding back her short chestnut hair, Seiffert, 30, looks more like a shop assistant in Marks and Spencer than a writer whose novel, The Dark Room -- a stunning trilogy of linked stories about the Holocaust -- has been sold in nine countries, received rave reviews from British, American and Canadian newspapers and a flurry of film options.
She wants people to read her book, but success for her means being able to sell her book without meeting the press. "I think I am much more aware now that you are being paid partly for the manuscript you deliver and partly for the service you provide afterwards in publicizing it," she says in a Toronto hotel bar over a cup of coffee, a glass of mineral water and a handful of nuts. Her hope is that The Dark Room (Knopf) will ride so high on the bestseller lists that next time, if there is a next time, she will be able to say to her publishers, as Gabrielle Roy so famously said decades ago to Canadian publisher Jack McClelland: "I'll write them, you sell them."
The loss would be mine, for Seiffert is that rarity, a fine writer who is an articulate and intelligent critic of her own work. The book consists of three separate, but thematically linked stories that use memory and photographic images to explore denial and individual accountability.
Helmut, the first story, is about delusion and the longing for acceptance. It follows a young man's life from his birth in Berlin in 1921 through the collapse of The Third Reich in the spring of 1945. Born with a deformed right arm, Helmut surmounts his disability in the nurturing shelter of his parents' love and the gentle training of a local photographer -- until Hitler comes to power. Helmut is unfit for military service and spends his time documenting the rise of Nazism, although he never realizes the implications of the images he is recording. Bullied and ostracized because of his handicap, Helmut finally gains acceptance as a leader of a desperate brigade of old men and Hitler youth as the Russian tanks roll into the capital.
Lore, the second story, is about denial. It opens in 1945 immediately after the war has ended. The main character, the teenage daughter of a Waffen SS officer, has unthinkingly accepted the trappings of Nazi ideology. Now her father is missing, later to be captured and imprisoned by the Russians, and her mother has been taken prisoner by the Americans. As Lore treks to her grandmother's home in Hamburg, with her four younger brothers and sister in tow, she joins thousands of refugees marching across Germany and sees for herself the horrific evidence of the Nazi terror. All she wants, when she finally reaches her grandmother, is to look forward to a time "when there will be no more ruins, only new houses, and she won't remember any more how it was before."
Micha, the final story, is about guilt and reconciliation. It begins in 1997 and is set partly in Frankfurt and partly in Belarus, the former Nazi-occupied territories. Micha is a schoolteacher who is obsessed with disinterring the Nazi past of his much-loved and long-since-deceased grandfather. The rest of his family, including his partner, a Turkish immigrant, wants him to leave the past alone, but he can't. Eventually he steals a honeymoon photograph from his grandmother's album and travels to Belarus to see if he can find any survivors who can condemn his grandfather's behaviour or exonerate him.
Long before she wrote a word, Seiffert had put out feelers into her own family's past -- her mother is German and her father is an Australian of German descent. Her parents met when her father went to Germany to study. Eventually they married and settled in England where he taught German at Oxford. "And that's enough," she says with a laugh, cutting off conversation about her father and her older brother.
She grew up speaking English and German and visiting her mother's family in Hamburg twice a year (and now lives in Berlin). "My family isn't like Micha's family in that I was allowed to ask questions," she says. "There weren't any silences like in his family."
"Were there the same kinds of worries in your mother's family?" I ask, as delicately as possible, having already ascertained that she is not Jewish.
"If you are German, you are very likely to have it in your past," she says. "My response now to these questions is that the book isn't about my family."
"Are you Micha?" I persist. "Are you the very annoying, but necessary questioner?"
"No, I don't have that function in my family because my family doesn't have the same response to those questions," she counters, and we let the subject lie like a soggy napkin between us.
Besides talking about the past with her own family, Seiffert did her academic homework. She did an honours degree in theatre, film and television at the University of Bristol and worked for five years in the film business in Glasgow. Having written a couple of scripts and directed a short film, she decided that what she really wanted to do was write. Helmut, her fourth story, just "got longer and longer." That was the manuscript she submitted as an entrance requirement to take creative writing at the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde.
"I had maybe 60 pages of Helmut before I went," she explains. She wrote the rest of the book under the guidance of a tutor. "He would read everything I had written every two weeks." she says. "I had a deadline, a response and a structure." It took her three years to write The Dark Room because she worked part-time and she read a lot.
My first guess about her reading list is Daniel Goldhagen's controversial thesis, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, in which he argues that Germans are inherently anti-Semitic.
"But the biggest influence," she says, "particularly in the third story, was a guy called Christopher Browning." He's the author of Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. " Ordinary Men was important because it dealt with the occupied territories in the east and the police -- not the Waffen SS like the grandfather in the third story, but the German police who were working there."
What impressed her about Browning was that he allowed Nazis to speak through interviews and in the letters they had sent home during the war. "He emphasized that they were very ordinary people who weren't driven by a particular hatred," she explains. "He was much more interested in exploring group behaviour and what becomes clear is that killing was part of everyday life, but that doesn't mean that people didn't find it hard."
Reading Browning was the first time Seiffert had come across actual words from the perpetrators talking about how they had to steel themselves to kill civilians. That vestige of humanity is why his book affected her more than Goldhagen's condemnation of all Germans.
Seiffert's book reminds me of Bernard Schlink's The Reader, but unlike that fascinating and intellectually provocative discussion about complicity and collective guilt, The Dark Room never veers away from its fictional roots. The ability to internalize her research and make it so much a part of the background that it barely shows is one of the great strengths of The Dark Room. It doesn't read like a first novel.
"For me, it is very much my first book," Seiffert demurs. "I still think there are parts that are too hysterical, that need to be ironed out. When I worked in film I worked on the editing side, so you are very aware that everything has to be cut down and that economy is best."
When she writes, she says she is simply describing the story running like a film in her head. The only style element that she consciously imposed was in Lore and that was to keep it in the present tense as much as possible. "We all look at the Holocaust with 20/20 vision," she says, "and I wanted to get the perspective of somebody who didn't know it had happened."
Even she admits that Micha, the character who can't let the past go, was very irritating and frustrating to create. But that is why the questions he asks, and the hurtful persistence with which he asks them, are so important. It would be easier for all of us simply to get on with the present and leave the past to moulder. That would be not only wrong, but dangerous, which is yet another reason to read The Dark Room.