The Hugo Hamilton Pages review – if a book could speak | fiction


TAustrian writer Joseph Roth, best known for his masterpiece Mars Radetzky, anticipates several of his themes in his third novel, Rebellion, first published in 1924. It tells the story of Andreas Pum, a WWI survivor who “lost a leg and received a medal”. The book is both realistic and grainy and a sort of parable, and shows how an initially accepting mind is turned to fury by disappointment. Pum only clings to life “to rebel: against the world, against the authorities, against the government, against God”.

For his 10th novel, Hugo Hamilton, son of a German mother and an Irish father, seized on Rebellion as a way to expand Roth’s concerns with the cruelty of state policy while deepening his own commitment to writing about nationalism and identity. He uses the adventurous device of employing a copy of the first edition as the narrator. “I came to life,” he tells the reader, “between the wars … between what were first considered fields of honor and later became fields of shame.” The pages is a special kind of audio book, ingeniously sympathetic to its inspiration.

At the heart of it is a fairly straightforward plot: Lena Knacht, an artist who lives in Manhattan with her husband Mike, is the daughter of an Irish mother and a German father, whom she inherited the copy of. Rebellion. At the end of the book is a hand-drawn diagram: is this the essential clue of some sort of treasure hunt? There is only one way to find out – by going to the site itself. Fortunately, she is soon opening an exhibition in Germany.

Even more practical, this remarkable book can provide at least part of the history of the diagram it contains. We learn that it originally belonged to David Gluckstein, a Jewish professor of German literature in Berlin; he gave it to Lena’s grandfather, one of his pupils, to keep it during the first Nazi autodafé episode in May 1933. The book is thus a witness to history, as well as a representative of it – a role that expands when stolen from Lena upon arrival in Berlin, then picked up by Armin, an architectural researcher who makes a living by “measuring empty spaces” to see if new housing can be built. .

Armin and his sister Madina are from Chechnya and were injured in the mid-90s war – Madina, who lost a leg, now plays the accordion in a band. The accordion playing and mayhem remind us both of Pum, and in a more oblique but brutal way, of being harassed by an obsessive fan, Bogdanov. In case we don’t already know how this echoes or parallels RebellionHamilton punctuates the novel with plot reminders, as well as descriptions of Roth’s actual marriage to Frieda, who suffered a slow mental breakdown and was ultimately murdered by the Nazis.

This multiplicity of stories has a congestive effect on the pages of The pages, but the shabby style means that we generally accept the somewhat flattened character of his characters. Hamilton’s main interest here is the interdependence of time, rather than the details of individual personalities, and he enlivens that by arousing our curiosity for the diagram in Lena’s talkative copy of Rebellion. Will it reveal anything of material value? Or will he teach a lesson about the relationship between the past and the present?

Lena leaves Berlin to interview her uncle Henning in Magdeburg, and he gives her a lot of family and literary stories. At this point, she began an affair with Armin, despite her husband Mike continuing to harass her with news from home. Specifically, with news about her mother’s problems with her neighbors. Clearly these local difficulties align with larger questions the book raises about territorial disagreement and displacement, but even with the conventions of the fable, it seems excessive to have so many intrigues converging on the same. point.

Still, the climax of the novel’s adventure story comes as a surprise, and all the more so when it turns out that several characters have followed Lena and Armin to the isolated farm indicated by the diagram. Despite the melodrama, this denouement plays into the novel’s main central preoccupation: recapitulations of history and the similarities between one bad nationalist era and another. But entangled in this theme is another concern. Armin’s work as a surveyor of void spaces; her sister’s missing leg; the political suppressions that shaped Roth’s existence; isolation from their real partner; the gaps in history and the gaps in human understanding of history: all this means that The pages – a novel that risks being encumbered with too many presences – is primarily interested in relaying the sorrows of absence.

The pages are published by 4th Estate (£ 14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, purchase a copy from Delivery charges may apply.

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