‘Fate,’ said Arthur. ‘The capital letter F. But chance is a powerful force, and suddenly you acquire a Fate that was never assigned to you. Some kind of accidental fate. It happens in a flash.’
What role do relationships, chance encounters, a moment of attention or distraction, and our own conscious and unconscious decisions play in the direction our life takes? What, then, actually is fate? Can you ever make sense of it? How do family and forebears, faith and faithlessness, fortune and failure, fraud, friends and fiction become part of the fate of the four Friedland family members at the centre of this novel?
The canvas of this brilliant work could not be larger. Aptly, the image of a Rubik’s Cube features prominently in its pages and on the cover. With a humorous touch, Daniel Kehlmann invites us to laugh not at the characters but at the futility of seeking quick answers to the riddle that is the course of any human existence. ‘But my future!’ Arthur Friedland’s teenage granddaughter says. ‘Seek it out yourself. Seek out the one you want,’ he replies.
Arthur articulates his nihilism through a novella he publishes to great acclaim after abandoning his family. His protagonist F leaves ‘the reader … trying to make sense of it all’ and with ‘the persistent feeling of somehow being mocked’. Were Kehlmann deploying postmodern devices such as playfulness and metafiction for mere literary effect, he would fail to engage us. Instead the book is at once cleverly entertaining, thought-provoking and very moving. This is because, in a world riddled with absurdity and mercilessness – and the author’s satirical depiction of the art world is especially biting – Arthur’s three children struggle to find their paths towards some meaning.
There is a quixotic heroism to their attempts: Martin becomes a priest whose lack of faith in God does not prevent him from comforting others; Eric, a fraudster on a cocktail of medicines, is rescued by the financial crisis; and Ivan is a peculiar forger, the actual painter of the pictures with which he and his lover build the latter’s reputation.
Kehlmann’s ability to elicit our sympathy for flawed protagonists testifies to the richness of the novel: ‘Everything passes,’ Ivan tells his father, ‘but that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as happiness … It’s a matter of moments, the good moments. They’re worth everything.’
Martin remarks that in his father’s novella ‘there is a sense that no sentence means merely what it says, [and that] the central figure is the reader, who is all too complicit in the unfolding of events.’ Both things are true of Kehlmann’s novel. It is woven with philosophical complexity and delivered with a light wit. Early on, we learn of a nightmarish event towards which the three brothers – unbeknownst to each other – are walking, for one of them tragically so, and yet we can stop them no more than they can stop themselves. The road that leads there is littered with mistakes, ambition, failures of communication, lack of confidence in their own talents, chance encounters that collide with all these, and fictional narratives they all construct – in different forms – about their own lives.
The masterly translation by Carol Brown Janeway renders every nuance of the writing: the humour, the flowing prose, the naturalistic dialogue, the surreal moments and the sharp characterisation. A highly recommended read.
Reviewed by Valeria Vescina
Written by Daniel Kehlmann
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway
Published by Quercus (2014)
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Valeria Vescina is a novelist, creative-writing tutor, reviewer and the Director of the Hampstead Arts Festival’s literary programme. Her debut novel, That Summer in Puglia (Eyewear), is out now.
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