F is for…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
“Then listen to me,” Lindemann put a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “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.”
When unsuccessful author Arthur Friedland takes his three young sons to see a stage hypnotist, he doesn’t expect it to change his life. But a couple of hours later, he lets the boys out of the car and drives off, not to be seen or heard of again for years. The three boys, identical twins Ivan and Eric and their half-brother Martin, are young adults when suddenly Arthur’s new book, My Name is No One, becomes a sensation. With its message that no-one exists, not even the reader, it achieves notoriety when it provokes a brief spate of suicides. And incorporated into the book is a history of Arthur’s forebears, stretching back for centuries, showing how eventually, in one way or another, they all went away and ‘never came back’. But, you know, perhaps they do…
We next meet the sons when they are in their middle years, the promise of youth having faded into failure for each. Martin, a priest who doesn’t believe in God, sees the other men of his generation advancing in the Church while he grows fat and breathless, and spends his life hoping no-one asks him any questions about the meaning of his faith (though he has a stock answer that stands him in good stead – ‘It’s a Mystery!’). To outward appearances, Eric is a successful financial broker, but in reality he has been defrauding his clients for years and fears he’s about to be found out. In a constant state of near hallucination due to over-indulgence in prescription drugs, he’s finding it harder and harder to distinguish reality from his nightmarish fantasies. Ivan realised early that he would never be a great artist, so has turned to forgery and fraud to make his fortune. It’s all going well, but that’s about to change.
The reader keeps trying to make sense of it all. Perhaps the hero died. Perhaps the inconsistencies are harbingers of the end, the first defective spots, so to speak, before the entire warp and woof unravels. For what, the author seems to be asking, is death, if not an abrupt break in the middle of a sentence which the reader cannot elide, a soundless apocalypse in which it isn’t humanity that disappears from the world, but the world itself that disappears, an end of all things that has no end?
This is a brilliant novel, sparkling with wit and intelligence. The fact that I have no idea what it’s about really didn’t affect my enjoyment of it in any way. F is for family, or failure, or faith, or fraud, or fear, or fate. Or possibly it isn’t. For fun (two more Fs), I looked to see what the professional reviewers were saying. The quotes in the book have Ian McEwan calling it ‘strange and beautiful’ – agreed – while Adam Thirlwell, with much more alliterative elegance, describes it as ‘a family saga, a fable and a high-speed farce’ – again agreed. The Guardian thinks it’s about the death of God, The New York Times thinks the ending may suggest that faith is the solution after all, and The Telegraph wimps out completely by deciding it provokes us to find ‘meanings of our own’. The sad fact is that I agree with all of these too.
The main part of the book takes place over three lengthy chapters, each told from the viewpoint of one of the brothers and each covering the same short time-frame. During that period an event happens that has ramifications for all three but, although the reader knows what happened, the brothers don’t, and this is partly what gives the book its air of slight farce. The writing is superb – Kehlmann can squeeze a mountain of characterisation into a few telling phrases, allowing him plenty of space to treat us to some fairly tongue-in-cheek philosophical asides. And he forces the reader to collude with him in mocking, but affectionately, the worlds of art, literature and religion. The translation by Carol Brown Janeway is seamless – there isn’t a single clunky phrase or passage in the entire book.
…and Arthur described his idea to write a book that would be a message to a single human being, in which therefore all the artistry would serve as mere camouflage, so that nobody aside from this one person could decode it, and this very fact paradoxically would make the book a high literary achievement. Asked what the message would be, he said that would depend on the recipient. When asked who the recipient would be, he said that would depend on the message.
One final review, a concise 5-worder this time from an Amazon reviewer, says ‘This book is impossibly pretentious’. And, do you know, I tend to agree with that too – except I’d add that it’s knowingly pretentious, inviting us to laugh at its pretentions, as a reflection of the world that its being pretentious about. It’s also absurd, marginally surreal at points, wickedly funny and superbly written. And one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.