“Jesus is the masterpiece. The thieves are minor works. Why are they there? Not to frame the crucifixion, as some innocent souls believe, but to hide it.”
“Now what sea is this you have crossed, exactly, and what sea is it you have plunged more than once to the bottom of, alerted, full of adrenalin, but caught really, buffaloed under the epistemologies of these threats that paranoid you so down and out, caught in this steel pot, softening to devitaminized mush inside the soup stock of your own words?”
The geography is immense, as the novel meanders through the streets of Paris, Madrid, London or Milan, the ruins of Cologne after the war, the snows of the Austrian border, Venice, Hamburg, the Crimean peninsula, the dark forests of Rumania, Mexico City, and, inevitably, Santa Teresa, the industrious and sinister city in the Sonora desert, still vibrating from the visit of the Savage Detectives.
Is Hans Reiter a reference to the war criminal of the same name? Does the writer’s name, Benno von Archimboldi, hide a deeper meaning? We follow four academics, German literature specialists, united by their obsession with the shadowy writer, Archimboldi. They read, visit each other, Mrs. Bubis, the publisher of Archimboli’s books and his lifelong friend, and try to discover who the writer really is. Their quest finally takes them to the city where girls and young women are butchered by one (of several) sadistic murderers.
Amalfitano, the critics’ host in Santa Teresa, reflects on death and his reasons to have moved o the city, from Spain, where his daughter, Rosa, was born. As he observed the treaty of geometry, hanging upside down from his washing line in his backyard, swept by the desert’s winds and dust, the scholar fears for his daughter, in a city where they kill girls like sparrows. Fate, the reflective journalist from New York, who travels to Santa Teresa for an article on a boxing match, when he is in fact no sports writer, befriends Rosa, and travelled back to New York with her, away from her father and the malediction of the city.
The endless narrative of the murders, spanning four years, unresolved and the investigation of which is plagued by incompetence, corruption and neglect, after all, most of the victims are poor girls working in the sweatshops of the city, or whores, or both, takes three hundred pages of the novel, a harrowing and at times monotonous read. Finally, Klaus Haas, a German-American citizen, is arrested, probably wrongly, for some of the murders.
At long last, we meet Hans Reiter, learn about the house in the forest, the one-eyed mother and the one-legged father. Young Hans is fascinated by the sea and its forests. Unstoppable, the river flows to the beginning of the war. Hans is strong, foolishly brave, visibly with no fear of death. Drafted in a light infantry regiment he picks up an iron cross on his way to Crimea. On a short permission back to Berlin he meets Ingeborg, who after the war would become his wife. Severely wounded Hans is sent to the village of Kosteniko, on the banks of the river Dniepr. There the future Archimboldi meets his future career in a farmhouse that belonged to Boris Ansky’s family, before the village jews were massacred by the Einsatzgruppe C. Hans discovers Ansky’s notebook, the story of an “enemy of the state”, witness of the horror, soldier of the revolution, and genial writer under another man’s name.
Fifty years later, Klaus Haas, son of Lotte, Hans’s sister, is in jail, his trial postponed. Finally Hans, now eighty, and a possible Nobel-awarded writer, visits Santa Teresa, closing the loop.
The book closed, we must read again, as we must reread “Q”, or Gravity’s Rainbow, or the Man Without Quality. In the end we know that Sisyphus trumps Thanatos, even for just a few years.
Image: Child in Berlin – David Bowie 1977