KINO by Jürgen Fauth

KINO.  The title was the first thing I loved about Jürgen Fauth’s debut novel.  Short for Kinematographie (German for cinematography), it’s the nickname of the story’s tragic hero.  But more importantly, it embodies the glamour of Berlin between two World Wars – a town of cabarets, never-ending parties, sex, cocaine (Zement), a new and prospering film industry and an economy teetering on a highwire… DAMN! what’s not to love?!

There was one lie that made me seem more interesting than all the others.  Everyone wanted to drink with me, get  high with me, and sleep with me when we told them I was a movie director.  It was a lie that turned me into the center of attention and opened the tightest twat.  One night over dinner, Joachim Ringelnatz – the whimsical poet who wore a sailor’s uniform wherever he went – eyed me funny and asked if I wasn’t a bit young to be working for the cinema, “für’s Kino.”

I had my mouth full of lamb stew, so Steffen came to my defense. “Don’t you read the papers?  Klaus is a prodigy! The youngest director in Neubabelsberg!”

I put down my fork, swallowed, and pointed a finger.  “Joachim,” I said.  “I don’t work für’s Kino.  I am Kino!”

When two German film canisters appear on Mina “Wilhemina” Koblitz’s doorstep she puts her life on hold to track down where they came from and what they mean.  Her grandfather was Klaus Koblitz –  the enigmatic German filmmaker of the 1930’s known as Kino.  A wunderkind whose entire oeuvre, with the exception of a Hollywood B-Movie, was lost in the war.  That missing work attained a legendary/cult status among serious film buffs.  And Mina quickly learns that the reels of film in the canisters hold what many believe to be his masterpiece – Tulpendiebe (The Tulip Thief). 

Jürgen Fauth has written a wild adventure full of intrigue, conspiracy theories and family history.  Who to trust?  What is the truth? Whose side are you on?  That last question might be the most difficult to answer.  As the book progresses we are introduced to the entire Koblitz clan – and a more miserable bunch of Arschlöcher I’ve never encountered.  Or a more fascinating. Tolstoy, apparently, was right.  Over the top, extreme in every way, the Koblitz’ motivations and responses are always realistic.  Fauth has accomplished something which I think can be very difficult for a novelist.  His characters hang together like a family.  You can read the Koblitz genetic code in each of them.  They resemble one another yet retain their individual personalities.

As the convoluted narrative unfolds we see Kino in 3-D.  He’s dissected in journal entries, friend’s and family members’ memories and – of course – the films themselves.  All interpreted through the 21st Century eyes of Mina.

I don’t know what I expected, honestly.  Something ponderous and silent, German expressionism or whatever.  It started with a logo I’d already sort of seen in our apartment, holding the film up to the kitchen lights.  Then, a pair of huge eyes:  a close-up of a little girl, staring straight into the camera.  Her father, whose face we don’t see, Peanuts-style, is reading her a bedtime story.  The cover of the book he’s reading from supplies the title credit:  Tulpendiebe.

Right away, Dr. Hanno started to whisper to me like a real-life DVD commentary track.  How back in the twenties, farming devices were all the rage, Dr. Caligari being the most obvious example.  He translated all the intertitles, even the one that said “Holland, Anno 1636.”

The main part of the movie is set in a picturesque Dutch seaside town, canals and fields and windmills and so on, but it’s all done in the studio with painted backdrops, making it looked stylized, like a kid’s book, with extras in clogs and bonnets and pantaloons.  Fake, but sort of charming.  Would have been better in color.

Fauth has created in his portrait of a man something reminiscent of The Real Life of Sebastian KnightKINO is densely packed with ideas.  The story plays out against the backdrop of Mina’s life, the year 2003 and the Iraq war.  Obsession, an undeniable part of an artist’s make-up, is a major theme KINO explores.  How much is an artist willing to sacrifice for his or her art?  And still remain within the bounds of what society deems acceptable?  What, as a reader, do you find tolerable?

And then there is the history.

I’d guess there have been thousands, if not tens-of-thousands of books, fiction & non-, written about WWII and the Holocaust.  KINO is also a part of that tradition, giving a thoughtful portrait of the toll Nazi Germany took on its own people.  The shattered hopes, dreams and lives – broken friendships & communities.  There is a hint of it in Daniel Stein, Interpreter.  Viktor Frankl touches on it briefly in Mans Search for Meaning. I thought of the musical Cabaret a few times while reading the novel (in a good way that I don’t usually associate with musicals).   But KINO hones in – forcing the reader to pause and consider what this man might have become if the rise of Hitler could have been removed from the equation.   From there it’s not so hard to make the leap as to how we might behave if the same situation was inserted into our own lives.

Yeah, Fauth has written a novel crowded with ideas. 

KINO challenged me all the way to its final, fabulous last sentence.  It is absolutely flawless.

Publisher:  Atticus Books, Kensington Maryland (2012)
ISBN:  978 0 9832080 7 5

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Death of a Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel (narrated by Elizabeth Klett)

My most recent audiobook download from Iambik.com is Rebecca Pawel’s novel Death of a Nationalist.  Set in 1939, in the early days of Franco’s Spain, it’s a murder mystery that doesn’t shy away from the complexities of history.

…The Spanish Civil War, often  considered a practice run for WWII, has only recently ended.  The short-lived Republic is no more.  The Nationalists, backed by Nazi Germany and Italy, are the winners.  The remains of the Republican army – a mixed bag of Communists, Socialists and Anarchists backed by the Soviet Union & Mexico, (and more quietly by England & the U.S.) – are in hiding.  Once discovered they’ll be imprisoned… if they are lucky; “taken for a walk” if they are not.

All in all, this is not a good time in the history of Spain.  People are starving in the streets of Madrid and the black market thrives. The population is still divided over the recent war.  Death of a Nationalist opens with the murder of a member of the Guardia Civil, the often corrupt civil police force tasked with restoring order and normalcy to the city.  The murdered man’s best friend and fellow Guardia, a Sargeant Carlos Tejada, is determined to find the killer.  What follows is an investigation fraught with wrong turns, mistaken beliefs, moral ambiguity and a number of red herrings.  All of which plays out against a vividly rendered historical backdrop.

So well rendered that at the end of the audiobook I was looking for the name of the translator.  Guess what?  There isn’t one.  Rebecca Pawel was born in New York City.  She’s still alive and still writing books.  Death of a Nationalist (published in 2003) is the first in a series featuring Sargeant Carlos Tejada Alonso y León.  A series that now consists of four books.

My point is:  Death of a Nationalist has all the strength and authenticity of a novel written in the 1930’s.  The writing style, historical details and psychology of the narrative reminded me so much of Nada by Carmen Laforet that I completely mistook Pawel for a contemporary. There is an immediacy to the events and opinions, an absence of hindsight, that I thought would be hard to create so long after the fact.

Death of a Nationalist throws you head first into the plot.  A young schoolgirl witnesses the murder of the Guardia, and that random act creates a domino effect that changes the course of her life and the lives of her family.  Pawel keeps a large cast of characters at her disposal.  To her credit I never felt lost or confused.  Everyone fit neatly into place without the plot being formulaic.  The main protagonist, Tejada, is something of an anti-hero.  He’s a fascist, not your typical knight-in-shining armor.  His beliefs make him unpredictable.  That unpredictability only increases the suspense.

As for the audio:  Iambik has come a long way in a short time.  More indie publishers are on board, more audiobooks are available – their library is constantly growing.  Now, when you click on the book title it takes you to a page where you can listen to a segment and decide whether or not you like the narrator’s voice.  A feature which I love!  Elizabeth Klett, who narrates Death of a Nationalist, does a great job. Her character voices are nuanced, each is imbued with subtle individuality.  I’ll definitely be listening to more of her work.  And I’ll definitely be looking for the next book in this series.  Which, sadly, is not yet available in audiobook.

Death of a Nationalist is available in traditional book form through Soho Crime.
ISBN:  978 1 56947 344 3

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Welcome Back to Barcelona! – The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

My vision of Barcelona in the 1930’s has been shaped by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.  The city sky is perpetually overcast.  I imagine glistening wet sidewalks and streetlamps haloed by fog.  Automobiles are large and sculptural, with polished chrome hood ornaments that cut through the night.  The men and women wander the streets with their faces buried in books.  Everyone looks like a Tamara de Lempicka model.

There’s a lot wrong with that picture.  All that dampness and shadow are neither conducive to the reading or keeping of books.  And with everybody’s  noses stuck between the pages no one can be paying attention. People would be colliding or, even worse, run down by those oncoming automobiles while crossing the street (the wet asphalt preventing the driver from braking in time).  So,  yeah, none of it is very practical.  But I would argue that this is representative of the kinds of  idiosyncrasies that make a Zafón novel special.  The small implausibilities that slowly add up and which the reader is willing to dismiss because the writing is so good.  It is a world subtly askew.

No one writes novels like Carlose Ruiz Zafón.  I mean that in the best possible way.  The Angel’s Game is no exception.  Like The Shadow of the Wind it is beautifully written, completely absorbing, and utterly fantastic.  Zafón lovingly crafts his tales from melodrama,  an excess of atmospheric setting  and characters a reader will fall hopelessly in love with.  Once again we gain entrance to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and browse Sempere & Son’s Bookshop.  We revisit old haunts we remember from The Shadow of the Wind. But memories change.  They play tricks.  This time the story is completely different.  Don’t be fooled by familiar landmarks.

The story of The Angel’s Game is much darker than the preceding book (which in fact follows this one chronologically) .  It centers around and is narrated by  David Martìn, a young writer who tells us the story of his life and the history of his career.  He makes his money as the author of popular Gothic fiction, pulps, which we are repeatedly reminded are a waste of his talent.  Still, they pay.  And they allow him to move into an abandoned mansion he has dreamed about since his childhood.  Writing pulps grants him the opportunity to publish his first serious novel.

It is at the Tower House, his abandoned mansion, that the publisher Andreas Corelli offers him the opportunity to work on a special project.  This same man has lurked on the edges of David’s life since childhood.  But there is something not quite right about Corelli, or about the book he is asking David to write.  And as David probes deeper into the history of his home, and of this new “Boss”, he discovers that he has involved himself in a sinister game that Corelli has played before.

While this game is at the center of The Angel’s Game ‘s narrative, it is by no means the only story told.  Because this is also the story of David’s life and the relationships that have been central to it.  This novel is about the making of a writer, and what becomes of that writer once he has been made.  We meet David’s parents, friends and his mentors, the women he has loved and who have loved him.  The Angel’s Game contains mysteries, suspense, horrors and romance. There are false trails and surprise twists.  Some questions are asked that will remain unanswered.  Needless to say, no summary will do the full complexity of the plot justice.  Trust me – once you start reading you’ll find it difficult to put this book down.

Zafón has said in interviews that The Shadow of the Wind & The Angel’s Game, as well as the two books that will follow, were originally envisioned as a single magnum opus of a novel.  I cannot even begin to imagine.  To my mind four books may not be enough.  (Realistically, Zafón probably could have gotten two novels out of the material he used in The Angel’s Game alone).  But where would be the fun in that?  This novel is as much about the journey through the labyrinth as it is about getting out at the end.

From the two books published so far it is still too soon to determine what will be the common thread running through the series.  The bookshop of Sempere & Son appears in both novels, which leads me to believe that there will  be a Sempere and son making an appearance in all four books (though not necessarily the same Sempere and son).  And of course the Cemetery of Forgotten Books – the magical heart of both novels.  After that, who knows?  Only one character has so far made a live appearance in both stories to my knowledge.  It’s so hard to predict where this is all going, perhaps it’s better not to try.  Maybe it’s best to keep wandering through the maze until the next book arrives.

Publisher:  Doubleday (2009)
ISBN:  978 0 385 52870 2