Just as fiction takes many inventive forms, so too does it have its share of original narrators, whether children or animals, the unborn or the undead. Occasionally a plucky author will take the ultimate creative risk and employ an inanimate object to tell a tale. Hugo Hamilton has done just that for his 10th novel. "The Pages" is narrated by a book — not just any book but one that has survived, and borne witness to, a dark chapter of 20th-century history.
That book is a first-edition copy of "Rebellion" by the great Austrian Jewish writer Joseph Roth. Originally published in 1924, Roth's gritty story about a World War I veteran scorned by society and neglected by the state was branded "degenerate" by the Nazis and burned with other so-called "asphalt literature" in Berlin in May 1933.
The book explains at the outset that its owner, a Jewish professor, saved it from the flames by giving it to one of his students, setting in motion "a quiet wave of resistance that has continued to this day." The student hid the novel, then later passed it on to his son, who eventually gave it to his daughter. Today, Manhattan-based artist Lena Knecht regards it as one of her prized possessions.
Lena — German-Irish like her creator — has become intrigued by a map drawn by hand on a blank page at the back of the book. Despite the protestations of her husband, Mike, she decides to fly to Berlin to throw light on the map. Soon after arriving, her book is stolen. Fortunately, it is found and returned to her by Armin, a Chechen who, together with his sister Madina, swapped a war-ravaged homeland for sanctuary in Berlin.
Lena befriends both of them and allows her relationship with Armin to blossom into romance. However, she comes to realize that the siblings are being threatened by Madina's jilted lover, a trigger-happy right-wing extremist on a mission to stem the migrants who have "flooded" Europe. Another obstacle appears when Lena discovers where her map leads to: As she prepares to embark on her journey, Mike arrives on the scene to pull her in a different direction.
"The Pages" isn't only about Lena's German adventures. Other stories expertly dovetail or run parallel with them. Hamilton recounts Lena's upbringing and traces the paths followed by members of her family; he weaves in episodes from real life, dramatizing Roth's reversal of fortune and transition into a rootless, rudderless refugee, "a man with no borders," and his wife Friederike's mental health decline and tragic fate; and he lets the book, his unique narrator, divulge its contents and its experiences.
So many narrative voices jostling for attention could have proved shrill and disorienting. In fact, their differing tones and textures imbue the proceedings with variety and complexity. This multifaceted novel about belonging, oppression and the enduring power of storytelling is brilliantly ingenious and utterly absorbing.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Hugo Hamilton.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 272 pages, $27.95.