'Voices in the Dark' is a disquieting exploration of moral grayness

Sunday, October 29, 2017 - 4:26pm

Based on Marcel Beyer’s “The Karnau Tapes” (1997), “Voices in the Dark” is Ulli Lust’s first fictional graphic novel and an ambitious undertaking. The novel’s protagonist, Hermann Karnau, is an audio engineer/scientist in his late twenties who is hired by the Nazi Party to work on strange projects during World War II. “Voices in the Dark” draws the reader into the niche world of sound recording and editing. Karnau’s interest in the essence of sound borders on obsession, driving him not just onto shaky moral ground, but far beyond it. Lust’s translation of Beyer’s story into graphic form is well paced, and her deliberately imprecise, gothic illustrations complement the emotional quality of the story. Her rendering of Beyer’s narrative stands on its own, a nuanced exploration of humanity that challenges our understanding of both ourselves and how and with whom we empathize.

Part of the novel’s strength comes from the ambiguity of Lust’s storytelling. Told primarily from Karnau’s standpoint, the novel shifts abruptly between his perspective and the perspective of Helga Goebbels, one of five siblings and the daughter of a high-ranking official of the Third Reich. The stories begin separately but become intertwined when the children run into Karnau’s dog, Coco. From this starting point of pure innocence, the novel progresses by degrees into an atmosphere of what can only be recognized as evil, before leaving its reader with a conclusion that is morally challenging in more ways than one. It does so in such a way, though, that the reader hardly notices if they aren’t paying attention.

The feeling of watching Karnau’s involvement in the Nazi government’s sinister “research” is one of disbelief. After much of the events of the novel have transpired, it is revealed that Karnau’s narratives are told from his perspective in the “present” — 1992 — after the discovery of audio recordings from the Führer’s final days in a bunker where they and many others spent the final days of the war. This revelation opens up space for a re-reading of Karnau’s recounts as a collective exploration of cognitive dissonance at its peak.

The novel’s first half is punctuated with profoundly disturbing images, but images accompanied by relatively benign or, at the very least, detached descriptions. At one point, Karnau gives a scientific description of a particular procedure: “The jaws are clamped apart to avoid damaging the enamel … several microphones are needed … One is secreted in the immediate vicinity of the sound source to pick up special frequencies.” Then we learn that he is preparing a human subject for torture through intense shocking. Other instances similarly juxtapose commentary that seems coldly out of touch with the images with which it is presented. One disturbingly memorable scene involves opening a subject’s throat in order to remove his entire tongue — without anesthetic. Thanks to Lust’s presentation, moments like these feel appropriately uncomfortable. Together, they provide a challenging look at how Karnau has, over time, distanced himself from the reprehensible eugenics-related “studies” that he himself orchestrated.

After challenging us, the narrative continues beyond Karnau’s recollections and enters territory that broadly questions empathy as he listens once again to the recordings he saved for himself. Throughout “Voices in the Dark,” we are drawn closer and closer to the five Goebbels children. Though they live with immense privilege, belonging to a family deeply implicated in the most thoroughly evil movement of the 20th century, they themselves are innocent. They poke fun at Karnau for having named his dog “Coco” — the youngest of the five breaks out in tears when her favorite stuffed animal is forgotten at the family’s estate when they move to a bunker in anticipation of air raids; once there, they find themselves missing the amenities of their previous lives: Chocolate and sugar and pastries.

While the children remain pitifully unaware of the grave nature of their situation, the reader knows too much, and watches the eldest of the siblings realize their fate. The mechanism that brings them to their fate, though, presents the emotional climax of the novel. Certain details are never clarified and, like Karnau’s war crimes, neither blame nor guilt assigned. Little is left truly resolved, but it seems a resolution would just undo all of the beautiful tension that builds up throughout. A true resolution would destroy the atmosphere of ambiguity so crucial throughout. Even the final pages of “Voices in the Dark" are doused in chilling mystery, as the titular voices, one by one, fall silent.