Is the voice the seat of the soul? Sound engineer Hermann Karnau thinks so, and he’s obsessed with recording the voice in all its infinite variations – from the ranting of leaders to the sounds of his neighbour’s lovemaking to the gargled whispers of the dying – in an effort to decode the voice’s secrets. It is work that consumes him, and has brought him to the attention of powerful men in the Third Reich. No longer will Hermann be reduced to setting up microphones at the Nazi rallies, or scurrying through the trenches trying to pick up enemy radio traffic. Now he is among the elite, and welcomed into the household of Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Here he develops an unlikely friendship with Goebbels children, and especially Helga, the eldest daughter. Goebbels has forbidden Karnau to record his children’s voices but, when Karnau and the children are reunited in Hitler’s Berlin bunker during the last days of the war, the sound engineer steals an opportunity… and unwittingly eavesdrops onto a heartbreaking human tragedy, a recording that will remain with him forever.
Voices in the Dark is Ulli Lust’s first fictional graphic novel, based on the novel The Karnau Tapes by Marcel Beyer. It is a powerful, deeply moving, richly textured work of art. Lust’s deceptively simple caricature-like drawings convey intricate emotion in a way that more precise photorealistic illustrations might miss – this is art that’s designed to draw us completely into the story, not dazzle us superficially with how lifelike it is. Lust doesn’t need realism to accomplish her task, she knows how to convey ‘real life’ with just a small sideways glance or the stoop of a shoulder, the trail of a tear rolling down Helga’s face, and it connects with us on a gut level. Narratively, the story works beautifully as well. The novel switches seamlessly between Hermann’s muddily hued world (and his precise, cramped handwriting) and the subdued oranges and pinks of the various summery retreats where the children play (together with Helga’s childish handwriting, all capital letters that never stray from the lines of her notebook). They are both, in very different ways, likeably naïve characters who are eventually going to be forced kicking and screaming into the truth of the world, and when the final turn of the story arrives (commendably without melodrama) it is deeply affecting. Very highly recommended.
VOICES IN THE DARK / AUTHOR: MARCEL BEYER / ADAPTED BY & ARTIST: ULLI LUST / PUBLISHER: NEW YORK REVIEW COMICS / RELEASE DATE: 10TH OCTOBER