I interrupt my season of January in Japan for a quick trip to Portugal, via Dresden, Paris and even Budapest.
I don’t usually take part in blog tours, but this is an unusual, one-day ‘make some noise’ for an unusual book, which I might not have picked up otherwise, although the title intrigued me. Perhaps I should clarify from the word go that this is not a biopic of Kokoschka nor about his obsession with Alma Mahler, which led to the creation of that monstrous doll he commissioned. This story is briefly mentioned in the book, but it is tangential to the main plot. If this meandering tale sparked by another tale sparked by a reminiscence sparked by a minor character who then writes their own story can be called a plot. It is in fact rather like a set of Russian dolls, one story nesting within another, although not progressing from the big to the small as neatly and predictably as Russian dolls. Of course, there is also the metaphor of the doll – of women, in particular, even ones the men obsess over (or particularly the ones they obsess over) having to be the beautiful silent partner, or being viewed as a possession.
In the first part of the novel we are introduced to Bonifaz Vogel, who has lost all of his family in the war-time fire-bombing of Dresden and now lives above the bird shop he runs, appropriately enough (Vogel is bird in German, but ‘to have a bird’ also means to be crazy or obsessed – the book is full of such puns and word games). When he hears a voice coming out from underneath his floorboards, his first thought is that it’s all in his head. In actual fact, it is Isaac Dresner, a Jewish boy who has hidden in the cellar, after witnessing his best friend being shot by a Nazi. A little later, a third person joins this little ‘family’: Tsilia Kacev, a waif of an artist’s model who wants to become a painter herself.
But that is just the first layer of the story. We are then taken into the swirling eddies of family histories, and particularly a lost manuscript of Thomas Mann’s, although the name of the author is Mathias Popa, an unsuccessful writer, who apparently stole it and tried to pass it off as his own. This mysterious Popa seems to have lived a million different lives all over the world, and in what follows we are never quite sure what is real and what is fiction, what is the world of his novel and what constitutes other people’s memories. Popa tells Isaac that he has decided to put him in a novel:
‘I’m going to be one of your characters?’
‘On the contrary, Mr Dresner, you are one of my character’s characters. My creation is far more perfect than you are… My character is the true you.’
‘But you hardly know me.’
‘We’ve met a few times, and that’s enough for me. I am able to see people the way they really are and not how they appear or how they dress in this world. I understand a person just by looking at them.’
If this reminds you of Fernando Pessoa and his personas or heteronyms, then this book certainly has an echo of that, and it is resolutely tongue-in-cheek about whether we can trust anyone to give us a coherent, truthful account of their life. I did occasionally get lost in the labyrinth of stories. This is almost certainly a book that needs to be read several times to be fully understood or appreciated. But there are moments of fairly straightforward and fun narrative that will appeal to any reader. One recommendation: it might be easier to keep track of the different stories and families if you have a paperback edition rather than e-book. I struggled a bit with the formatting for Kindle.
Rahul Berry translates from both Spanish and Portuguese, and seems to naturally gravitate towards quite experimental fiction. I was very intrigued by this interview I uncovered from when he became the Translator-in-Residence at the British Library in 2018.
I want to focus on how people’s identities change and adapt as people start existing in other languages. Though I grew up speaking only English, 3 of my grandparents spoke 4 languages between them (Hindi, Sindhi, Punjabi and Welsh) but spent most of their lives existing in English. I also want to play a small role in challenging the hegemony of English, which, under the guise of utility, ends up being ubiquitous, making the world a more predictable and less exciting place.
In a way, this novel challenges the hegemony of ‘received’ narrative, showing us that everything is always open to interpretation, and that we need to be open to new ways of looking at things. Our stories are constantly being constructed, and never quite finished.