cover image The Karnau Tapes

The Karnau Tapes

Marcel Beyer. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $23 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-15-100255-9

The events of this bleak novel of WWII are seen through the eyes of two Germans: Herr Karnau, a soft-spoken, 30-ish sound technician, and Helga, an eight-year-old in a privileged but chaotic household who must guide her five younger siblings through the war without much help from her parents. Both Karnau and Helga have dark secrets. Karnau is obsessed with the human voice, recording and analyzing it in all its manifestations, from an aria to the shrieks of dying soldiers at the front. As the war drags on, he becomes more involved with the Nazi party, and his obsession finds a shockingly cruel, surgical outlet. In the meantime, we slowly realize that Helga's busy, distant father is in fact the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Although Beyer's clean prose conveys the fine shades of sensory experience with a meticulous precision, certain aspects of the book are puzzling. The sympathetic bond that develops between Helga and Karnau is difficult to reconcile with Karnau's monstrous inner life. His auditory obsessions never really reveal their thematic purpose (they're ultimately more baffling than sinister or symbolic), and the plot meanders during the book's early stages. But once the action shifts to Hitler's bunker in the last days of the war, the narrative finds its true tone in the Nazi leaders' moods of desperation, thwarted ambition and madness. U.K. rights: Secker and Warburg. (Nov.) FYI: Beyer won Germany's Ernst Wilner Prize for this novel.