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Two vastly different narrators alternately bear witness to German life in the last five years of World War II, and they do so in the most dissimilar ways imaginable. One is Helga, the eldest daughter of propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels; the other is Hermann Karnau, an authority on acoustics and human speech, an expertise which he uses to tape dying soldiers on the front, the banter of Helga and her five siblings in good times and bad, and the hoarse barking of Hitler in his bunker just before his suicide. Karnau, in loco parentis, looks after the children while their parents try to cope with the desperate German situation. The children find in Karnau the only human being they can really trust, in contrast to their father, whom they neither fully understand nor wholly trust.

Though Flughunde is essentially fiction, the history which fuels it is real enough and close at hand. Goebbels's narcissism, his infidelities, and his rhetorical genius are strikingly drawn. Helga, with a child's unfailing instinct for spotting the truth, suspects "Papa" of cheating on "Mama" and, during a rousing war speech she is allowed to attend, of even misleading his fanatical audience regarding the war.

The pages occupied with the technicalities of acoustical phenomena, the harnessing of sound frequencies, and Karnau's effort to interpret his findings in terms of a deeper understanding of the human psyche are truly eye-opening. But the chief point in all this seems to be a subtle analogy: on the one hand, the human inability to perceive sounds beyond a certain parameter; and on the other, the children's inability to understand the "grown-up" world all around them. Why, for instance, is the Fuhrer thought to be invincible when houses are destroyed all over Berlin and people lie dead in the streets? In other words, when it comes to picking up life's signals in their deepest meaning, we are in a sense all of us children, and the world around us is off-limits.

By far the most appealing and heart-rending part of Flughunde (which are batlike creatures that can hear what we cannot) belongs to Helga and her siblings, with their childlike games in the midst of destruction and their helplessness in grasping the earthquake they are living through and which will soon swallow them up. The pitiful ignorance of what is happening to them as their mother injects them with prussic acid in preparation for the infanticide is nothing if not wrenching.

Large parts of Flughunde are superbly done and show a master hand of creative writing. It is a relentless book, maintaining a fine balance between external events and interior voice.

Robert Schwarz Florida Atlantic University
COPYRIGHT 1996 University of Oklahoma
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Schwarz, Robert
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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