A Flight From World War II's Devastation. BOOKS REVIEW
FAREWELL, DRESDEN By Henri Coulanges New York: Summit Books 285 pp. $18.95 THIS novel tells the gripping story of a young German girl's attempt to survive the horrors of war, prejudice, and guilt. Twelve-year-old Johanna Seyfort and her mother flee wartime Dresden, aflame from firebombs. Her flight, first to a farmhouse above the smoking city and then to Prague, is a journey from an intolerable experience into an intolerable memory of it.
Both mother and daughter learn how it feels to be attacked simply because of one's national identity. As a child of the Nazi generation, Johanna comes to feel that she is ``part of something enormously wrong, and would never see a God who had disappeared behind the black smoke that engulfed Dresden.''
She goes from seeing warriors not as romantic knights in books but as riderless, emaciated horses of the Dresden circus, then as the horsemen who rape her mother, and finally, as the mounted soldiers intent on murdering all the Germans in Prague, as the war comes to a bloody end.
Johanna's pain from such hatred resembles the pain she has always felt from her mother's rejection of her. Just as she is attacked for being German in the war, she has been unloved by her mother because of her physical resemblance to her dead father, a man absent from her mother's heart and memory. ``Farewell, Dresden,'' however, suggests that Johanna's feelings of abandonment, like those of a war-ravaged people who believe they are separated forever from humanity, can gradually change.
Significantly, at Easter time, Johanna stays in Prague with an aging archaeologist, Professor Hupka, her father's friend. Through him, she learns that individual Czechs value her. He teaches her to place her own experience in the context of other ruined civilizations and lives. She must learn to ``take refuge'' in something she loves in order to avoid seeing only a barren world and a dark future. The archaeologist recovers her past for her by recalling her father's love to her.
Winner of the $50,000 Grand Prize of the Acad'emie Fran,caise, ``Farewell, Dresden'' remembers for a new generation of readers the most destructive bombing in the European theater of World War II. Its images are unforgettable.
Written in a deceptively simple style, this novel suggests that it is when individuals recognize connections to others that recovery occurs. Images of connectedness echo each other. Johanna ties herself to her friend as they run through fiery Dresden. She sees her friend Franz as an Assyrian prince in her father's books. She draws the image of a mouse on his wrist so that he can pretend it is she visiting him as he goes to get his leg amputated. And she readies him for death by tracing on his arm the cuneiform symbol of joy which he had originally drawn on her wrist. Connected, Coulanges implies, we can confront our past. It is a good sign when Johanna's mother weeps with Johanna, because ``If she remembers, she can recover.''
Johanna rescues Hupka's important archaeological discoveries for future generations by sending them in a letter that makes its way ``through the curtain of hatred.'' Like Johanna's letter, ``Farewell, Dresden'' illumines a dark chapter of history for its own readers, reminding us that ``nothing can change what has happened, but who can say what will come out of it?''