Quick: Name a few German novels.
If the only title you can come up with is “The Tin Drum,” a cheerless political allegory featuring Nazis and a drum-banging dwarf of questionable sanity by Günter Grass, or “All Quiet on the Western Front,” an even more cheerless account of wartime despair by Erich Maria Remarque, then reading “F,” a new novel by Daniel Kehlmann, will come as a surprise.
“F” is an amusing, breezy tale of three brothers whose lives diverge in unexpected directions after their father is compelled to perpetually act out his deepest desire by the Great Lindemann, Master of Hypnosis. Unfortunately for shy elder brother Martin and identical twins Eric and Ivan, their father’s greatest desire is to abandon his family and become a famous novelist. And this is precisely what he does, dropping his sons off at home after the Great Lindemann’s show and vanishing from their lives until they are adults.
The boys deal with their father’s absence in singular ways. Martin grows up to be a Catholic priest who does not believe in God, but has unshakable faith that he can become a Rubik’s Cube world champion. Ivan makes an unsuccessful attempt at an artistic career, and then finds that creating forgeries of a famous dead painter’s work is far more lucrative. Eric, a Bernie-Madoff figure, descends into carefully concealed madness as his company’s Ponzi scheme begins to unravel.
The meaning of the title of the novel is not clear at the outset of the narrative, nor does it become obvious as the story unfolds. F, in English at least, is for “fraud” and “failure,” which can apply to each of the three brothers. F is also for “family,” which is the tie that binds all four men inextricably, though years of absence and bitter resentments separate them. Most critically, F is for “funny.” The novel may deal with heavy topics such as mental illness, parental abandonment and spiritual angst, but it is unerringly light and witty in tone.
F is also the main character of “My Name Is No One,” the novel that makes their father famous.
“Is ‘My Name Is No One’ a merry experiment and thus the pure product of a playful spirit, or is it a malevolent attack on the soul of every person who reads it? No one knows for sure, maybe both are true,” elder brother Martin muses. For him and for his brothers, the answer is always just out of reach, and it informs their memories of, and eventual reunion with, their father.
Like the title of Kehlmann’s novel, the protagonist of the fictive “My Name Is No One” is an enigma.
“All we know about his name is its first initial: F. … F is put to the test, he defends himself, fights, learns, wins, learns more, loses and develops as he moves on, all in the grand old manner. But there is a sense that no sentence means merely what it says, that the story is observing its own progress and that in truth the protagonist is not the central figure; the central figure is the reader.”
In part, “My Name Is No One” and its protagonist can be seen as Kehlmann’s analysis of his own writing career.
Kehlmann’s 2005 novel, “Measuring the World,” is a bestseller in Germany, having broken the record for book sales for a German language book that stood untouched since 1985’s “Perfume” by Patrick Süskind, which is a dark, Teutonic tale of serial murder that is credited with inspiring songs by German metal band Rammstein, Marilyn Manson, as well as Seattle’s own Nirvana. Will “F” outpace its award-winning predecessor? Or, like the fictional author of “My Name Is No One,” is Kehlmann doomed to a single overwhelming success?
In the end, Kehlmann offers another interpretation of “F” via his stand-in author and absentee father figure.
“Fate. … The capital letter F. But chance is a powerful force, and suddenly you acquire a fate that was never assigned to you. Some kind of accidental fate. It happens in a flash.”
Book Review - F by Daniel Kehlmann