The 1920s are tough in post-war Germany, but the show must go on and the art market flourishes despite all economic struggles. Yet, where money can be made, fraudsters aren‘t far away. Julius is a Berlin based art dealer and specialist in van Gogh; Rachmann is a young Düsseldorf art expert who is hoping to make a career in the business, too; Emmeline is a talented artist and rebel. Since the art world is a small one, their paths necessarily cross and one of the biggest frauds in art links them.
I have been a lover of novels set in the 1920s and 1930s in Berlin since this was a most inspiring and interesting time of the town. Not just big politics after the loss in the first word war and then the rise of the Nazi party, but also the culture and entertainment industries were strong and the whole world looked at the German capital. Quite logically, Clare Clark‘s novel caught my interest immediately. However, I am a bit disappointed because the book couldn‘t live up to the high expectations.
I appreciate the idea of narrating the scandal from three different perspectives and points in time. The downside of this, however, was that the three parts never really merge into one novel but somehow remain standing next to each other linked only loosely. At the beginning, I really enjoyed the discussions about art and van Gogh‘s work, but this was given up too quickly and replaced with the characters‘ lamentations and their private problems which weren‘t that interesting at all and made reading the novel quite lengthy.
Randolph Tiefenthaler is a successful Berlin based architect. With his wife Rebecca and their two kids, they just moved into the stylish old houses of the German capital where they have find the seemingly perfect home. Yet, it doesn’t take too long until the neighbour from the basement, Dieter Tiberius, becomes more and more awkward and strange. He writes love letters to Rebecca, which is just annoying, but then he accuses her of child abuse and repeatedly calls the police to check on them. Randolph gets a lawyer, he contacts the youth welfare service, but there is nothing he can do to protect his family from the crazy man in the basement. The fear that he might attack his wife or hurt the children grows and with it the marriage become increasingly fragile. There nerves are on the edge until the day they cannot support it anymore and they need to help themselves to protect the family.
Dirk Kurbjuweit plays with the family idyll which is threatened in the core: the home. The loving father who has built the perfect life for himself and his wife, becomes suddenly incapable of action. He cannot protect his beloved, there is a danger close at hand that he cannot control and sees himself exposed defencelessly. The pressure which is on Randolph and Rebecca is palpable and you as a reader also feel the growing impression of being helpless, powerless and most of all vulnerable.
Even though from the start it is clear what the outcome of all will be, the thriller is full of suspense and the development of the plot gives you the creeps. Kurbjuweit has a very lively style of writing and making Randolph the narrator underlines the feeling of being a part of the story and makes it easy to sympathise with him and to commiserate with him.
It is by coincidence that the Brazilian musician and author learns that his dad fathered a boy when he lived in Germany. Their house has always been full of books, his father a passionate historian and writer, horded them and, at times, forgot letters and other things in them. It is such a letter that Chico finds which indicates that his father had an affair with a certain Anne Ernst when he lived in Berlin as a journalist around 1930. Later, when the Nazi regime took over, he tried to bring his son to Brazil. Since father and son hardly talk to each other, it is not an option for Chico to ask him about the unknown half-brother, thus, Chico starts his research on his own.
Even though the book is classified as fiction, it is based on Chico Buarque’s life and the facts he reports about his father and German brother are actually true. Sérgio Buarque de Holanda spent some time in Berlin where Sergio Günther was born who later became a well-known artist in the German Democratic Republic. Unfortunately, the brothers never had the chance to meet.
I really appreciate Buarque’s tone of narration, especially at the beginning, the light-heartedness with which the young men move around town is well transferred into the language the author uses. Interesting to observe are the family structures. Even though the father’s main occupation is closely linked to language in all shapes and forms, the family members hardly find a way to communicate with each other and the most important things remain unsaid. A third aspect which struck me was the part in the novel which gives insight in the time of the military regime. Hardly do I know anything about the country’s history, therefore those glimpses are most fascinating.
Sometimes life itself invents the best stories. Even though some of it is fictional, I found Chico Buarque’s story about his mysterious brother most intriguing and a perfect example of how complicated families and our lives can be.