A father takes his three sons to a hypnotist's show. Called onto the stage, the father's cool self-possession and confidence seem to prevail, and he walks away, claiming no effect. They leave the show, he drops his sons off and drives away. We learn later that he has taken his passport and emptied the family bank account. The boys will not see him again until they are adults.
Arthur Friedland's abandonment of his children is the tragedy at the center of this beautifully translated novel by German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann. When we next meet the brothers, they are grown, and each is experiencing a crisis of sorts. Martin, the son of an earlier marriage, is overweight, socially awkward and still obsessed with the Rubik's Cube his father gave him as a boy. Although now an ordained priest, he cannot manage to conjure actual belief in even the most basic tenets of faith.
Martin's half-brothers — identical twins Eric and Ivan — had been inseparable (and indistinguishable) as boys but are now drawn apart by the secrets they keep from each other. Eric is a businessman whose financial misdeeds are about to catch up with him; Ivan is an art dealer and forger. In fact, all three brothers are fraudsters of one kind or another, and through them, Kehlmann, with dry wit, philosophical wonderings and relentless pessimism, examines the detail of lives lived without integrity.
None of the Friedland men are very good at life. Plaintively, one of them muses: "How did other people know how to behave, where was it written, how did you learn it?" Do their problems all stem from Arthur's disappearance? Did something happen to him on that stage with the hypnotist to make him run away from his life and his family? Or is the state of mind that makes for disconnection and disaffection just our lot as humans in complex modern times?
In chapters that switch point of view to focus on each family member in turn, Kehlmann narrates the lives of the brothers during the summer of 2008, just before the global financial crisis, as the deceptions upon which their respective existences are built are threatened with exposure.
This is a book for the reader who doesn't mind working hard. In one exceptional chapter, there is an anecdotal genealogy-in-reverse that tracks the lives of Arthur's ancestors across the globe and through the centuries. It's an object lesson in compression made all the more intriguing by the fact that, taking into account the abandoned babies and disappearing fathers, it's a lineage that cannot possibly be verified. And yet the reader is compelled by the recurring talents and fates that mark the family history.
Kehlmann's prose is sophisticated and often dense, his musings on religion, art and life are intellectually rigorous, and his plotting masterful in the linking of the story's separate narratives with overlaps that, when revealed, surprise and shock the reader. Despite the fact that I did not find a single likeable character here — each too deeply flawed and unpleasant to be comfortably deserving of empathy — the challenge made this a hugely rewarding read. After all, as Arthur tells one of his sons: "A life doesn't last long, Ivan. If you're not careful, you squander it in stupidities."
Recent research shows that works in translation account for approximately 3 percent of all books published annually in the U.S. and the U.K. Fiction's slice is an even smaller fraction. Thank the publishing gods, then, for the work of translators such as Carol Brown Janeway. Even a writer of Kehlmann's proven skill needs a sensitive and equally talented translator to transform images, jokes and all the complexities of well-drawn characters believably into another language. So well attuned is Janeway to the author's style and sensibility that I did not find a single false note in the entire book.
Although I persuaded myself that I was reading a tale with a distinctly German "personality," there was much in Kehlmann's study of a family in crisis that I connected with: the thoughtless disloyalties and acts of selfishness along with mutual co-dependence; the sense of shared fates even as each seeks to forge a separate life.
Kehlmann's rendering of life's mysteries, and Janeway's seemingly effortless brilliance as a translator allow the reader a window to another world, another language, as if looking (and listening) through clear, highly polished glass.
Ellah Allfrey is an editor and critic. She lives in London.
It cannot be an easy thing to write a comic novel about the death of God. Still, the German novelist Daniel Kehlmann may just have pulled it off. “F” is the protagonist of a book within a book, the debut novel of Arthur Friedland, a rather disorganised buffoon who never had any success as a writer until an encounter with a hypnotist gave his life its chilly purpose: “This is an order, and you’re going to follow it because you want to follow it, and you want to because I’m ordering you, and I’m ordering you because you want me to give the order. Starting today, you’re going to make an effort. No matter what it costs. Repeat!”
My Name Is No One is so exuberantly nihilistic, its readers are throwing themselves off TV transmission towers. As Kehlmann says: “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.”
If Kehlmann played this intertextual game to the hilt – if F itself were as unforgiving as Arthur’s novel – then we would be looking at a less important book, as well as a less enjoyable one: some Johnny-come-lately contribution to the French nouvelle vague. The spirit of Alain Robbe-Grillet, the movement’s greatest exponent, illuminates the scene in which Arthur takes his granddaughter to an art museum to study a picture by her missing uncle: “She stepped even closer, and immediately everything dissolved. There were no more people any more, no more little flags, no anchor, no bent watch. There were just some tiny bright patches of colour above the main deck. The white of the naked canvas shone through in several places, and even the ship was a mere assemblage of lines and dots. Where had it all gone?”
There are many such moments, they are all as beautifully judged as this one, and they are not the point. The point of F is not its humour (though Kehlmann, like Robbe-Grillet, can be very funny indeed), but its generosity. Arthur’s three sons, in their turn, make superhuman efforts to give their lives significance, and these efforts tangle and trip over each other to generate the comic business of the book. The eldest, Martin, a Rubik’s Cube expert, embraces the priesthood despite his lack of faith. Of Arthur’s two sons by his second marriage, Eric enters the glass-and-steel world of high finance to help control his fear of cramped spaces. His twin brother, Ivan, is a would-be painter turned art dealer, and author of Mediocrity As an Aesthetic Phenomenon.
“When I was young, vain, and lacking all experience,” he recalls, “I thought the art world was corrupt. Today I know that’s not true. The art world is full of lovable people, full of enthusiasts, full of longing and truth. It is art itself as a sacred principle that unfortunately doesn’t exist.”
Ivan, like all the others, lives in a nihilistic universe, but he is not himself nihilistic. It worries him that the world cannot live up to his expectations and those of the people he admires. These people include his lover Heinrich Eulenboeck, an artist with a true calling but only mediocre ability. What kind of world is it that plays such a trick on a person? “How do you live with that, why do you keep on going?”
The answer seems to be love. In a godless world, love counts for a great deal. And failing love, ordinary human decency goes a long way. Since Kurt Vonnegut died, there has really been no one to tell us this; the reminder is welcome.
F is again translated by Carol Brown Janeway, but itis a better book than Kehlmann’s last, Fame, whose narrative gymnastics caused characters to lose or swap their identities, and even to topple into their own or other people’s fictions. Fame was knowing, driven by its own absurdity. F is about the world’s absurdity, and this makes a huge difference morally. The world is big, and ultimately unknowable, and life is short and memory pitifully limited.
In the absence of God, Kehlmann’s protagonists hold themselves to account, and they give themselves hell. Sometimes, they give each other hell. “Something terrible has happened and the people seem to be wanting to cover it up. If you were to look a little longer, hunt a little better for clues, you’d be able to figure it out, or at least you think so. But if you step back, the details disappear and all that remains is a colourful street scene: bright, cheerful, full of life.”
It is very hard to express how funny this all is. But laughter matters most in the dark.
• Simon Ings’s latest novel is Wolves. To order F for £13.59 (RRP £16.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.