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Thursday, 5 February 2015

F a novel - Daniel Kehlmann (Translated by Carol Brown Janeway) - 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

In 1980 the world was introduced to the “best selling toy”, the Rubik’s Cube. Now surely you’ve all heard of it? The six sided cube which has an internal pivot mechanism, with nine stickers on each of the six sides. You mix it up, and attempt to get the white, red, blue, orange, green and yellow all aligned on their correct sides. I could go all weird on you now and explain that the white is opposite the yellow…blah blah blah. Basically a six sided puzzle will possibly suffice for an opening foray.

“F” by Daniel Kehlmann is a puzzle too, however it contains a character who is obsessed by the cube, enters championships, talks about his progress and carries the optimal solution to another level. But wait, there’s more, our novel contains six sections (are they the six sides to the cube?) but only four main players…yes four.

Our work opens in the third person with the father Arthur taking his three sons, Martin (who didn’t know his father until he was seven years of age, and lives with his mother) and twin boys Eric and Ivan (who live with Arthur and his current partner) to a hypnotist’s performance. A façade?

Arthur doesn’t believe in hypnotism, however both Ivan and himself are called on stage, Ivan has his hands stuck together, but it is the sceptic Arthur who goes onto the stage, appears to have a normal conversation about his life ambitions, who appears to fall under the spell of the “Great Lindemann”. He drops the children home, empties the bank account and promptly disappears. He sends a telegram, one; he’s fine, two: don’t look for him. Yes he’s fine.

We then move many years into the future to the first person narrative of Martin, who reveals that his father is now a famous novelist, the author of “My Name is No One”, a novella about a young man called “F”:

Is My Name Is No One a merry experiment and this pure product of a playful spirit, or is it a malevolent attack on the soul of every person who reads it? No one know for sure, maybe both are true.
The opening sets up an old-fashioned novella about a young man embarking on his life. All we know about his name is its first initial: F. The sentences are well constructed, the narrative has a powerful flow, the reader would be enjoying the text were it not for a persistent feeling of somehow being mocked. F is put to the test, he defends himself, fights, learns, wins, learns more, loses, and develops as he moves on, all in the grand old manner. But there is a sense that no sentence means merely what it says, that the story is observing its own progress, and that in truth the protagonist is not the central figure: the central figure is the reader, who is all too complicit in the unfolding of events.
Slowly but surely the little discrepancies accumulate. F is home, looking out at the rain, puts on a jacket and cap, takes his umbrella, leaves the house, wanders the streets, where it isn’t raining, puts on a jacket and cap, takes his umbrella, and leaves the house, as if he hadn’t just done that already. Shortly after that a distant relative appears, who has already been registered in a subordinate clause as having died ten years ago, an innocent visit to the fair by a grandfather and his grandson turns into a labyrinthine nightmare, and a piece of clumsiness on F’s part with major consequences is would backward until it clearly never happened. Of course this all leads to the construction of theories. Very slowly there comes a dawning sense of comprehension, then the realization of being on the brink, and then the story breaks off – just like that, without warning, right in the middle of a sentence.

Yes dear reader, you are going to be complicit in this story, you have been pre-warned, the plot may not follow a normal linear course, and there could be unexplained events, maybe even a fairground which is a labyrinth nightmare. This will questions your fortitude.

Back to Martin, he’s now in the clergy, he tells us about his choice of vocation, he still plays with his Rubik’s cube, he still lives with his mother, he has had no lovers, and he’s a puzzle and a conundrum just like his toy. He also has no faith, basically he’s a failure.

Our next section is “Family”, where we have Arthur recounting numerous generations of his family tree (nearly all male), questioning how he has come into being, based upon a raft of coincidental events, a plethora of inconsequential tales. That is our lot in life….fate???

Our fourth side to the cube in Eric’s voice, “Duties”, he is now an investment “guru”, who has defrauded his biggest client. He is a meticulous dresser, highly medicated, a professional presenter but lost on the inside. He is pursued by his own demons. This section reminded me of Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho”, without the serial killing, just fraud and fear.

On my way to my study I pass the open door to the salon. Ligurna, our Lithuanian made, greets me looking tragic. I not to her and hurry on past. A year ago in a moment of weakness I slept with her. Unfortunately it happened not in the kitchen or on my desk but in the master bedroom in our marriage bed. Afterward Ligurna searched carpet and bedside table like a skilled detective for hairs, eyelashes, and any other traces: nonetheless I was afraid for weeks that she could have overlooked something. Since then I’ve only spoken to her when it’s unavoidable. I can’t throw her out, she could blackmail me.
I sit behind the desk, swallow two tranquilizers without water, look at the Paul Klee, look at the Eulenboeck on the opposite wall: a canvas covered with a collage of newspaper cuttings, with a crushed Coca-Cola can and a teddy bear glued in the middle. You have to go right up close to realize that it’s all trompe l’oeil. The bear and the can aren’t real, not are the bits of newspaper; it’s all painted in oils. If you examine the cuttings with a magnifying glass, you see they’re all art criticism about collages.

We then move to Ivan, Eric’s twin brother, and a section titled “Beauty”. We learn of his career as an art critic and then dealer, his string of lovers, before ending with his homosexual relationship with the artist Eulenboeck, his further meeting with the hypnotist the Great Lindemann, and his hidden secret, he’s a forger.

The lights in the subway shrink, become a single patch, then disappear. Beauty has no need of art, it has no need of us, either, it has no need of witnesses, quite the opposite. Gaping observers detract from it, it blazes most brightly where no one can see it: broad landscapes devoid of houses, the changing shapes of clouds in the early evening, the washed-out grayish red of old brick walls, bare trees in winter mists, cathedrals, the reflection of the sun in a puddle of oil, the mirrored sky-scrapers of Manhattan, the view out an airplane window right after it’s climbed through the layer of clouds, old people’s hands, the sea at any time of day, and empty subway stations like this one – the yellow light, the haphazard pattern of cigarette butts on the ground, the peeling advertisements, still fluttering in the slipstream of the train, although the train itself has just disappeared.

By having numerous voices and protagonists, our writer is able to approach a broad range of concepts, from things such as beauty through to the complexities of living with a family.

Our final section (side six of the cube) is “Seasons”, this is Eric’s daughter’s voice, but in the third person and it is split into three chapters. The flowering apple tree (spring), the falling leaves (autumn) and snow (winter) – where is summer? Another part of the puzzle? In this section our hypnotist reappears at a side-show, now working as a blind tarot card reader. That is surely fraudulent?

We also have a reference to a written work “Family” which is actually a section in this book we are reading, we also have (in Ivan’s section) the father Arthur returning to visit his son and his lover, he is asked what he is currently working on, poetry, fiction?

“Probably going to be another detective novel. A classic locked-room mystery. For people who like riddles.”
“So is there a solution?”
“Of course! But nobody will find it. It’s very well hidden”
“Is that the case with Family too?”
 “No. That’s a story in which the solution really is that there’s no hidden solution. No explanation, and no meaning. That’s the whole point.”
“But that’s exactly what it’s not! Or rather it is, but only if you tell it in a way that makes it so. Every existence, if you look back on it, is made up of terror. Every life becomes a catastrophe if you summarize it in the way you do.”

This is a wonderful work, playful, thought provoking, smart, humorous, enjoyable and a modern day fable.

So what about the title? “F”? We have Family, fraud, faith, forgery, fate and fake or does the conundrum contain funny?

Note – I’ve added my own little edge to my review – every paragraph (excluding the quotes) ends with a word starting with “F”!!!

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1streading said...

Loved your review - all your questions rather reflected my experience of reading the book! I did enjoy it and, like you, hope it makes the IFFP list.

David H said...

It's interesting that both you and Grant end your review with questions. It's that kind of book, isn't it?

Meredith said...

I love how you specifically, and Grant more generally, likened the novel to the Rubiks Cube. It is indeed a many sided puzzle, with several twists and turns, all ultimately pointing to the futility of each man's character. To me, they were weak and foolish.

But, I did enjoy laughing at Eric's antics as he fought to deceive all his investors...his wife...his girlfriend...his own self.