Child of All Nations

You don’t expect a novel about a family tramping around pre–World War II Europe to hold you in its grip so tight that you read the entire book in one sitting. But that’s exactly what Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations does, thanks to the shrewd voice of its narrator, a ten-year-old girl named Kully who coolly endures being dragged from country to country by her neurotic mother and ne’er-do-well writer father, who’s turned his back on Nazi Germany. Keun, whose books were banned by the Nazis, is bound to be resurrected from obscurity by this 1938 novel, now getting its first English translation by Michael Hofmann. Written before the full onslaught of the Holocaust, the book treats war as dark background scenery and focuses instead on the family’s plight — a struggle that keeps them barely one step ahead of poverty, creditors, and starvation. Kully’s insights into her world are simple but profound: “My throat felt like an endless tube full of hunger.” Or consider her perspective on international politics: “The world has grown dark, because of rain and war?. War is something that comes and makes everything dead. Then there’ll be nowhere left for me to play, and bombs will keep falling on my head.” Kully is a captivating character, and even in the face of misery, she’s often very funny: “I’m not sure whether I don’t understand grown-ups, or if they’re just too stupid for words.” This, however, is a novel that’s smart beyond its years.