'F' Is For Fraudster In A Family Novel For Our Modern Times

Originally published on August 21, 2014 9:30 am

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.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For all of the literature that's written around the world not much of it makes its way to the U.S. Books written in other languages that end up being translated into English make up just 3 percent of what's published here. And international fiction is just a fraction of that. Critic Ellah Allfrey has been paying particular attention to this category. Here she is with the review of a new German novel by Daniel Kehlmann called, simply "F."

ELLAH ALLFREY, BYLINE: Let's give thanks to the publishing Gods. It must have been they who delivered to us Carol Brown Janeway and her wonderful translation of Daniel Kehlmann's latest novel. I, for one, am grateful. The book opens with an outing. Arthur Friedland is taking his three sons to see a hypnotist. When he's called on stage, his cool, fatherly self-possession and skepticism seem to prevail. He returns to his seat unaffected. They leave the show. Arthur drops his sons off at home and drives away. Later we find out that he took his passport and emptied the family bank account. The boys won't see him again until they're adults. This abandonment is the tragedy at the center of the novel. The next time we meet the brothers they're grown and each is in crisis. Martin, the son of Arthur's first marriage, is overweight and socially awkward. He's an ordained priest, but he doesn't believe in God. Identical twins Eric and Ivan were inseparable as boys, but now their secrets keep them apart. Eric is a businessman involved in some financial misdeeds. Ivan is an art dealer and a forger. In fact all three brothers are fraudsters. And through them Kehlmann, with dry wit and relentless pessimism, examines lives lived without integrity. We watch the brothers struggle and we wonder, do their problems all stem from Arthur's disappearance. And did something happen to Arthur on that stage with the hypnotist to make him run away? As he switches from point of view to the next, Kehlmann orates the fate of the Friedland family during the summer of 2008. It's just before the financial crisis and lives built on deception are threatened with exposure. This is a book for the reader who doesn't mind working hard. In one exceptional chapter there's an anecdotal genealogy in reverse that tracks the lives of Arthur's ancestors. Kehlmann's prose is sophisticated and dense. His musings on religion, art and life are intellectually rigorous and his plotting links all of the separate narratives in ways that will surprise and shock the reader. Even though I found all of the characters to be deeply flawed and unpleasant people the challenge made this a hugely rewarding read.

CORNISH: The book is "F" by Daniel Kehlmann. Ellah Allfrey had our review. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.