Reviews — From the August 2014 issue

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The titular letter in Daniel Kehlmann’s F (Pantheon, $25.95) stands for Fate. Or Forgery. Or Father. Or Family. It’s also the name of the antihero of one of the umpteen novels within this novel, My Name Is No One, who is called only F. And finally it’s the last initial of the author of My Name Is No One, Arthur Friedland, a frustrated writer who takes his three sons to a kiddie show by a gimcrack hypnotist known as the Great Lindemann, whose spell causes Friedland to abandon that family for his work and, resultantly, international fame. Whether the Great Lindemann actually became, this once, an effective hypnotist or whether Friedland was just seeking a convenient opportunity to hit the road remains a question:

And could it be that Arthur’s answer to the question of why he had walked out on [them], was that anyone who gave himself over to captivity and the restricted life, to mediocrity and despair, would be incapable of helping any other human being because he would be beyond help himself, succumbing to cancer, heart disease, his life cut short, rot invading his still-breathing body?

“View of a Moon Crescent,” by Warren De la Rue © Adoc-photos/Art Resource, New York City

“View of a Moon Crescent,” by Warren De la Rue © Adoc-photos/Art Resource, New York City

Kehlmann’s third novel, in a casually virtuosic translation from the German by Carol Brown Janeway, attempts an answer by detailing the adult crises of Friedland’s brood. Martin grows up to be lonely, obese, and a priest despite his atheism. He’s a man compelled to love, but unable to love, a Heavenly Father who can’t be seen, heard, or touched. Ivan becomes an artist and critic who finds himself struggling against the entire patrilineage of Western painting. Ivan’s identical twin, Eric, becomes a businessman preoccupied by the paranormal and occult, as well as a disdainful patron of a contemporary-art market saturated by Fakes and Frauds. Interspersed with the sons’ first-person reminiscences are selections from the shadow oeuvre of Friedland père.

My Name Is No One is a troubling text, according to Kehlmann’s summary:

F is home, looking out at the rain, puts on a jacket and cap, takes his umbrella, leaves the house, wanders through the streets, where it isn’t raining, puts on a jacket and cap, takes his umbrella, and leaves the house, as if he hadn’t just done that already.

Friedland’s second book, The Hour of the Hunter, is a “superficially conventional thriller about a deeply melancholic detective who, despite his vast intelligence and desperate efforts, is unable to solve an apparently simple case.” The Mouth of the River concerns a man “whose fate branches out again and again, depending on different decisions or the whims of Fortune. Each time the two alternatives are explored, the two paths that life can take from the same event.” Each corresponds to the life of a Friedland son, and the cumulative effect suggests — no spoilers — that all existences are but the product of absent, foreign fathers.

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