This pacey novel by Daniel Kehlmann has reached the shortlist of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize which awards both writers and their translators. I read it in German so cannot comment on the translation but am sure, given the quality of literature which reaches both the longlist and shortlist, that the translation has done a great job of bringing this book to English speaking audiences.
The novel is about a middle aged man called Arthur and his three sons, Martin, Iwan and Eric, the latter two being twins. Arthur lives with the twins’ mother, having had a relationship with Martin’s mother too. He is a writer of novels which never get published: the family live off the salary of the twins’ mother, who is an ophthalmologist. As a father he interacts with all three sons dutifully but doesn’t seem overly interested in them or indeed in shouldering responsibilities at all. The novel starts with Arthur taking all three sons as young teenagers to see a hypnotist, The Great Lindemann. In a scene written with masterly control and a build up of tension we see the power of the showman, the hysterical pressure to participate on the part of the crowd and the resistance of the sceptical Arthur who is nevertheless cajoled onto the stage. Something happens to Arthur there, resulting in him leaving the hall with his sons, depositing them swiftly back with Martin’s mother and disappearing from their lives for several years. The only contact the boys have with him during this time is seeing his name on the novels which are now getting published.
The novel then fasts forward several years to the adult lives of the three sons and we learn what has happened to each of them in three sections narrated from their points of view. Martin has become a Catholic priest, although he doesn’t believe in God. He is a lonely character, living with his mother, obsessed with the Rubik Cube puzzle (it is the early 80s) and a compulsive eater. There are several passages verging on the comic where he is hearing confession while fantasising about chocolate bars or how long he can hold out before getting a Coke from the Automat- it should be said that while I found these passages almost comic, other members of my book group saw them as not funny at all, but rather a painful evocation of Martin’s sad life. It is with Martin that one of the novel’s several existential themes is introduced: that of chance- Zufall in German- when he runs to his father’s car to be taken to the hypnotism show and narrowly misses getting run over. He feels afterwards almost split in two, as if part of himself was left lying on the asphalt. The idea of splitting is echoed by the twins, who are identical and aware that it is a random splitting of cells which has led to their existence as two separate individuals. The theme of random chance permeates the novel and cleverly creates a crucial twist in the plot later on.
Next we are introduced to Eric who is an investor and in a flat spin because of his shady dealings with clients’ money coming to light. He is a kind of anti-hero, out of touch with his daughter, cheating on his wife, constantly avoiding people and phone calls and constantly on the move, his agitation well reflected in Kehlmann’s short sentences and spare prose. He has haunting dreams- which are an important but to me not always comprehensible feature of the novel- and even a sort of surreal descent through his cellar into a bottomless labyrinth. I was not sure here whether this surreal event was drug induced or the result of psychosis but either way he is seriously out of touch with reality.
Finally we meet Iwan, who is gay but feels compelled to hide this from his twin brother. He is artistic and wants to be a painter but after running into the Great Lindemann again by chance he has a dream where Lindemann tells him he has no talent. When he develops a relationship with an artist called Eulenböck, whom he sort of manages, he ends up channeling his artistic talents into forging Eulenböck’s paintings after his death and inflating their value on the art market. As with his brothers, much of his life is based on a deceit, but of the three sons, Iwan is possibly the most emotionally connected, and it is his decision to help another human being which leads to the plot’s denouément.
The last section of the book, entitled ‘Jahreszeiten’ -seasons – takes place a little later and the narrative now focuses on Marie, Eric’s daughter, whom we see in three different stages, a few months/years apart. Although somewhat neglected by her wealthy but egotistical and now divorcing parents, she has friends and later a boyfriend and can form relationships. Nevertheless she is not sure having a boyfriend is necessarily a good thing: she has begun to draw, wants to study medicine, to see the world and have all kind of experiences. When Arthur makes one of his occasional further appearances in the book to take her to the fair, she has her tarot read by an ageing charlatan who turns out to be the Great Lindemann, now really down on his luck. Leaving his tent, Arthur advises Marie to choose her own future, the one that she really wants, and we do feel that she, in contrast to the male characters in the book, may be able to shape her own future.
So what is this book really about? Kehlmann depicts a world in which people are seeking direction for their lives in outside forces, whether it be the structure of religion or the power of hypnotism. Dreams are powerfully present and influence choices and decisions. Yet it is chance which often intervenes randomly to determine the direction of the character’s lives, while leaving a shadowy imprint of ‘the road not taken’. While I enjoyed this exploration of ideas I did find the piling up of ideas at times confusing and destabilising, feeling a bit like Eric groping his way around the bottomless and labyrinthine cellar. But I was held and entertained by the skill of Kehlmann’s writing: pacy, short ( for German) sentences, witty dialogues pursuing misunderstandings, inner monologues, repetition of words and phrases to comic and sinister effect and an utterly absorbing thriller pastiche at the heart of the novel. Although I found none of the male characters likeable, there was enough variation of voice and focus to keep me interested in the plot and a more optimistic note suggested at the end through a female character, which was grist to my feminist mill. So while the novel shows us a bleak universe with flaky characters subject to the workings of random chance, I was nevertheless entertained, engaged and made to think by the skilful art of Daniel Kehlmann.