MAY 25, 2013
What is this world of ours? A complex entity subject to sudden changes which all indicate a tendency to destruction; a swift succession of beings which follow one another, assert themselves and disappear; a fleeting symmetry; a momentary order.
DIDEROT IS THE AUTHOR whom the title character of My Father’s Book, a translator, loves most — and also one he rarely translates. These lines, from Diderot’s Letter on the Blind, could well describe the rush of days, events, and interactions that make up the world of My Father’s Book, the second in Urs Widmer’s trilogy. The senses are everything in these novels, in which the lives of a mid-century Swiss family — mother, father, and son — each make their individual courses through history. Recounted from the point of view of the son, their existence shimmers and snaps with sensuality, but also throws sparks from the pressure of its own subjectivity, of what we can and cannot know, even about those we know best.
My Mother’s Lover, the first in the series, depicts a failed love affair that haunts the narrator’s mother. My Father’s Book, the second in the series, was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award 2013. It follows the life of the narrator’s father Karl, a mercurial, sickly intellectual who earns a living as a language teacher, but whose passion lies in translating great French literature. Both books have strongly autobiographical elements. (The third book in the trilogy, Life as a Dwarf, will be published in mid-July.)
As in My Mother’s Lover, the narrative style in My Father’s Book is breathtakingly complex. As the narrator tells his father’s story, his gaze often hews closely to Karl’s, and his voice becomes inflected by turns of phrase that clearly belong not to him but to Karl. Rich description gives way to rapidly shifting snapshots to match the pace of the story. This is the real thrill of reading Widmer: he masters the acceleration and deceleration of voice that follows the roller-coaster rides of existence, history. The book is ebulliently punctuated, filled with interjections, half-thoughts, hesitations. The rhythms of spoken language break into the narration, then dissipate in lyrical reveries. At a certain point, you find yourself nodding in agreement: yes, yes, yes, this is life.
Donal McLaughlin’s translation of this challenging voice is a joy. The language is idiosyncratic and daring — Widmer’s punctuation and sentence structures could have been smoothed further, and I’m glad they’re not, because the aforementioned pacing is so important. There is light-footedness and fun, but also precision. The basic units of My Father’s Book are the extreme close-up, the individual moment; it is a book of details, of exactness, and McLaughlin’s angular, energetic English reflects that.
In the opening pages of the book, boy Karl sees Kaiser Wilhelm II: young Karl studies, becomes a communist, and weds; and old Karl dies wretched and frail in his home. After this fly-over view of his life, the narration spools back and we spend the rest of the book meandering through his days.
In Karl’s tiny Swiss ancestral village, a sort of primeval cauldron where the essences of life are close at hand, every resident is given a coffin on the day of their birth, which is displayed outside of their house for the duration of their life. At a coming-of-age ceremony in the unorthodox village church, each resident also receives a book in which they are to record the events of their days.
We witness a bewildered, rain-soaked pubescent Karl’s ceremony, which then dissolves back into earthly (if eerie) existence:
[No] one seemed to give a hang about the Black Chapel being a holy place. Karl was one of the last to leave through the narrow portal. A mild wind. They were all carrying lanterns at the end of long hazel sticks, Chinese lanterns; some carved from sugar beets too, hideous faces with crooked eyes, warped mouths and grinning teeth. A woman was carrying a lit heart ahead of her; the other side of the lamp had a wolf on it. Karl was given a Chinese lantern on a stick too, a globe made of red paper in which a candle was burning. Four white crosses, one for each point of the compass. He was also carrying his book, which was heavy as a stone.
Raucous merry-making ensues at the local inn, inaugurating the beginning of Karl’s sexual existence, including an orgasm of such bewildering power that the reader feels both pity and awe toward the boy.
This ur-past of childhood is mythic and kaleidoscopic. It bristles densely with people, artifacts, and events sweeping through Karl’s life. (Those familiar with Olga Tokarczuk’s work will be reminded of Primeval and Other Times.) Karl’s adult existence, which comes slowly into focus, is more familiar to us, but no less vivid.
In his adulthood, from his infatuation with bawdy medieval tales at the university, to his flirtation with communism and local government, and his involvement with a group of mostly untalented bohemian painters, Karl develops the relationship to art and to culture that will shape his life and form his passion. Well, one of his passions. Karl deeply loves his wife Clara, who is a distant but omnipresent character in My Father’s Book. Knowledge of My Mother’s Lover imparts a distinctly bitter, melancholic flavor to the relationship.
Clara’s dwindling inheritance subsidizes Karl’s extraordinary lack of monetary sense and growing library. Together with Clara’s sister and her philandering and eventually opium-dependent husband Rüdiger, the couple moves into a “Bauhaus aquarium” of a house full of beautiful furniture made of steel tubing. Following Karl’s mostly uneventful conscription — World War II is an ominous shadow that brings waves of refugees but never the destruction that seemed to have been at the doorstep — a quarrel with Rüdiger sends Karl and his family packing to a new, crumbling house where they live out their days.
The suppression of the narrator’s ego throughout the story is nearly total. He comments little on his father’s life; events and dialogues shine in their own objective light — logically so, as the narrator could not have witnessed many of the events. The reader assumes he has his information from the book his father has kept since the coming-of-age ceremony. In addition to being absent for much of the book, the narrator remains nearly nameless: “Then the child was born, me, and my father was pleased. Pleased beyond measure, so much that he never called me by the name with which I was baptized but always invented new pet names for me. The names of animals, but not only. He used so many different names, in fact, that I responded to everything. Be it Bear or Dwarf.”
At times the narrator’s detachment is the loudest element in the book, as when his mother Clara is taken to a mental institution and the child stands shocked in the doorway. (McLaughlin, has made an interesting choice in calling the child “it,” suggesting a disturbing degree of self-alienation on the part of the narrator. In German the word child is neutral — das Kind — and its pronoun is es. Hearing es describe the narrator’s childhood self still makes you wince in German, but it’s less shocking than the same it in English.)
Though he is the focus of the book, Karl too is rather withdrawn and opaque. We flow through the book’s pages in a wash of his experience — his hometown, his wife, his work, his friends — but we remain separated from him by the same gulf that his son faces when looking at his father. Though the narrator can describe his father’s life, he does not penetrate Karl’s soul. Even Karl’s passion for literature is tied to the concept of evasion, escape: “That was the advantage of books: he could close them if the life within them got too much for him.” Karl, whose translator’s pen does not approach the Diderot closest to his heart, is like the silent eye of a hurricane around which My Father’s Book revolves.
The identities of Karl and his son are so diffuse, so shifting, that we are left clinging to the threads of their voices. When, in the end, we learn the fate of the book Karl was given to write his life in, we understand the void around which My Father’s Book is constructed. This is perhaps the essential question of the novel: supposing we knew all of the events of someone’s life, even our own father’s, would that mean we really understood that person? Wouldn’t that book describe the relentless cascade of life rather than the essence of its subject?
Amanda DeMarco is a Berlin-based translator, and a contributing editor for the international book industry news website Publishing Perspectives. She is also the founder of Readux Books, a publishing house dedicated to individually published short works of (mostly) translated literature, whose first books will appear in October 2013.