A Novel in Nine Episodes
Carol Janeway, Translator
(Pantheon)In our review three years ago of Kehlmann's Measuring the World, we proclaimed it as "spirited, short, funny, wildly eccentric."
You not only get Humboldt but shy Gauss, ancient Kant, mad Leibniz, anxious young Weber ... all seeded generously with aperçus on physics ("space was folded, bent, and extremely strange...") and aging ("How had he grown so old? One didn't feel right any more, one didn't see right any more, and one thought at a snail's pace. Aging wasn't a tragedy. It was a farce...")
We say, again, speaking of his newest, Fame ... it's "spirited, short, funny, wildly eccentric." Nutty characters in nutty situations.
Maria Rubinstein goes somewhere to the east, for a conference. And it is one of those travel stories they publish in the Chronicle or the Times, about your worst nightmare travel ghastly never-ending experience: you get put in the wrong hotel; the country is hot, barren, bug-ridden; all they serve, everywhere, are "platters of fatty roast pork mayonnaise."
And the language: no one speaks your language, no one at all, anywhere. The driver from the airport says, "You business ... Kill why?"
She smiled to show she didn't understand.
"Everything," said the man. "Foam. Lorry?"
"Hobble," said the man. "Hobble grease. Why?"
It is only when we get to the end that we and poor Maria learn that she will never escape from this awful, fly-specked land. She is now stuck, perhaps for the rest of her life, in the blighted countryside, cleaning dirty floorboards for a slovenly old woman, even as she thinks that somehow "she'd come out of this" ... that she would not be "stuck here for eternity."
These stories are a lurid mix of Donald Barthelme and Franz Kafka. On top of that, there are people who roam about from one chapter to the next, like Joyce's man in the mackintosh. Here, it's a man in the red hat. And everywhere, there are "self-help books" by one Miguel Auristos Blanco.
Then there's the matter of Kehlmann himself popping up in Rosalie's story, in "Rosalie Goes Off to Die." Her doctor has just told her that she has pancreatic cancer, and that it's "incurable." So she books a flight to Switzerland, to seek assisted suicide, where people can "hasten things along." The author assumes that we might want to know more about this, but,
If you haven't heard of it until now, pay attention; you can learn things even from a short story.
But not completely. "I'm not going to name it because my lawyer said not to." At one point, she appeals to him, "begs for mercy." He responds,
Rosalie, it's not within my power. I can't.
Of course you can! It's your story.
But it's about your last journey. If it wasn't, there's be nothing for me to tell about you. The story ---
Could take a different turn!
It's the only one I know. There is nothing else for you.
If you think I'm going to get involved in this impossible back-and-forth between Rosalie and Daniel, you have another think coming. He created this whole strange situation and I'm not about to stick my nose in what is, essentially, other people's business. No sir-ee, bob. I know my place.--- Louise Wellcome, PhD