Tragedy laced with dark humour. Plots twisted by metafictional tricks. These descriptions best sum up Daniel Kehlmann’s intriguing stories. The latest book by the best-selling, award-wining German writer —F— debuts in English this month. F for Fun you wonder? For sure.
The first chapter introduces us to Arthur Friedland, a struggling writer who takes his three sons to see a stage hypnosis performance. When the Grand Lindemann calls Arthur on stage, the ill-at-ease father claims that hypnosis doesn’t work on him. Still, the hypnotist manages to pry Arthur’s deepest secrets out for the dead-quiet audience’s entertainment. When Arthur returns to his seat, his sons —Martin, Eric, and Ivan— are unnerved and embarrassed. They demand to leave immediately. That evening, the twins cannot explain to their mother why Arthur dropped them off on a street, far from home, and drove away without them. The only certainty: their father didn’t return home that night or any following night. The final paragraph of this strange first chapter compels the reader much like the book’s hypnotist:
“Arthur had taken his passport and all the money in their joint account. There were only two sentences in the telegram: First, he was fine, no need for concern. Second, they shouldn’t wait for him, he wouldn’t be coming back for a long time. And in fact none of his sons set eyes on him again until they were grown up. But the following years did see the publication of the books that made Arthur Friedland’s name famous.”
The story then fast-forwards to the three sons as adults. I enjoyed how Kehlmann dove right into the mind of each character, giving them unique voices with different outlooks on fate. Martin becomes a Catholic priest even though he doesn’t believe in God. He’s a plump, endearing man obsessed with eating and mastering his Rubik’s cube. Through Martin’s eyes, we ask existential questions and ponder about Arthur Friedland’s motives. Eric’s narrative takes the reader one a steadfast descent rushing from one tense, unbearable event to the next —a fall tinged with paranoia. A rich businessman in over his head, he brings to mind the failing figure in the Mad Men opening. By knowing Eric’s thoughts, we better understand the “difference between lies and the truth.” Finally, Ivan —the tortured artist— brings yet another dimension to the Friedland saga. He poses as an art executor who reinvents himself and his famed employer. Through a thought-provoking discussion of Art, Ivan pushes the reader to reflect on beauty and truth. Much like Arthur, the three gown-up sons are all frauds. Faithless, fearful, and fake. Haven’t we all —at one time or another— been deceitful to ourselves or others?
Recurring phrases, events, and symbols resurface throughout the story, so don’t blink. And when the writer speaks directly to the reader, take note. When you second-guess your understanding of Kehlmann’s intentions, don’t dwell. You may feel “there is a sense that no sentence means merely what it says, that the story is observing its own progress.” Although this feeling may be justified, keep reading and enjoy the downward spiral. Every fated trajectory comes to an end, and this one wraps up in a curious, satisfying way.
*I received an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.*