Extreme Understanding

Jenny Diski

  • Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun, translated by Michael Hofmann
    Penguin, 195 pp, £14.99, January 2008, ISBN 978 0 7139 9907 5

As any adult can tell you – or any adult not given over entirely to mawkish and convenient notions of innocence – children are born spies. Every parent (previously an independent individual pursuing their own interests and desires) knows: a child arrives and it starts to watch you. You are never alone again, not really. There is someone who has arrived and will not go away; who not only watches you but also possesses their own consciousness, has views, puts two and two together and understands more or less than you want them to, but either way distorts the picture you have of your life.

It is the sole task of children to find out what is going on. From the first (or is there a brief time when just being will do?) their job is to piece together incomprehensible signs and whispers, to learn to interpret them in order to reveal secrets. The overt stuff is one thing, useful obviously, but also excellent cover to keep the adults happy: learning to talk, to walk, to put a spoon to your mouth. The real work is to find out what is going on. Not why – that doesn’t really matter to spies or children – just what is happening and how it happens. It can hardly be any other way, at least not for children brought up in the enclosed family unit, more amoebic than nuclear, that has developed in the West over the past century and more.

The family is a breeding ground for covert operations, its very structure tending to encourage conspiracy and duplicity. A little world, like the larger nation state on which it is modelled, where loyalties are formally required and betrayal is, on the level of thought at the very least, inevitable. The public and the private rub up against each other like tectonic plates, both within the family, and between the family and the wider world, creating intolerable tensions. A new creature born into such a structure had best have all its wits about it if it is to survive. It must watch, listen, and try to put disparate events together to explain the shortfalls between what is said and what is happening. Figuring out what is going on is everything. You don’t know what is happening, and the people who you suppose do know tell you only what they think you ought to know. You grow up with lies and half-truths, Santa, the tooth-fairy, denials, evasions, and when you start to wonder if anything they’re telling you is true, you also realise that there’s no one else to ask, nowhere else to go, so you had better play your cards very close to your chest. The essence of the family, whether it has one or two parents, is that it is enclosed, like a religious order. Whatever version of reality it offers is the only one available. There’s the playground and television, but everyone in and on them came through the same system and is probably lying or getting it wrong. Children learn to inhabit a secret life between what they live and what they’re told. I suppose it’s a source of imagination. Either it drives you mad, or you learn to enjoy the game. And that’s just to describe the regular happy enough family in uneventful enough times.

We take it as axiomatic that adults are more capable in the world than children, that they understand more, can manipulate reality better, but this is a bold assumption. What happens in the torrid little world of the family when, aside from ordinary resentment of the intrusion of their watchful children, the parents and/or the times are a particular disaster, is that the burden of knowing becomes immense for the child. Secret knowing is a weight we all carry, but when you have to know for or instead of your parents or the world, you are obliged to know everything. So Maisie discovers, the watchful centre of adult turmoil, in What Maisie Knew. Her parents, step-parents and governesses explain their version of the world to the living flame that keeps their incomprehensible relationships on a rolling boil: ‘It isn’t as if you didn’t already know everything, is it, love?’ and ‘I can’t make you any worse than you are, can I, darling?’

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