Saturday, April 25, 2015
The narrator, the perpetrator of those seven lies (Luther tells is in the frontispiece that “every lie must beget seven more lies if it is to resemble the truth”), is Stefan Vogel, who tells us the story of his lies knowing we, aware of his lying nature, will be wary even of his confession. And still, as the reader realizes Stefan really has nothing to lose, the power of his confession grows and takes on a convincing sense of dread and foreboding.
Stefan comes of age in the German Democratic Republic (what we would then have called East Germany) in the 1970’s. He’s a curiously fatalistic teen, given to feeling that those unfortunate things that happen to him have in some way already happened, that the feeling of déjà vu he feels is because somehow something in his character makes these things necessary, that they must happen now as they have always happened, and even if he doesn’t remember exactly when they happened before, they must have, so appropriate are they for someone possessing his unique gift, that of being a lightning rod for misfortune. A reader may think that Stefan’s feeling of fated-ness has led him to the passivity that in turn makes it seem to him as if life is happening to him more than he is happening to life.
The most salient feature of Stefan’s nature is his inability to act, to take any kind of initiative, to be what the self help gurus term “proactive.” He is not one to take arms against a sea of troubles, to be sure, or to plan against the storm that might occasion that sea of troubles—rather, he is more likely to get on a ship during hurricane season because he can’t think of anything better to do, and then find himself in a storm from which it is well nigh impossible to escape. And even then, his impulse would not be to directly confront the situation, but to try and trick and manipulate and deceive his way out of it.
Although some reviewers called this book a political thriller, I would call it a thriller in which some of the suspense is imbricated in politics. It does not pit East and West, Capitalism and Communism, against each other, but rather shows that in East Germany in the 70’s, one way you could climb the social and economic ladder was through political intrigue and trickery. It did not seem to be a denunciation of Capitalism or Communism per se, but a broader study of how you can get what you want if you betray your fellow man, and yourself. In this sense, it is universal. You can see a lot of Walter White (Breaking Bad) in Stefan Vogel.
One lie does lead to another for Stefan. Living a somewhat privileged life as the son of a minor party bureaucrat whose uncle is a well-placed party officer, he does not seem to want for much. But his mother, who was an aristocrat before the war, wants better for her family. She feels what is happening now runs counter to what should be because she is a displaced aristocrat, royalty in proletarian disguise. It is not just that she imagines she would be an aristocrat in West Germany, but that she would be a member of the ruling class anywhere. When Stefan’s father falls from favor with the party, Stefan’s mother decides that the family will now express its superiority through its intellect, and its artistic sensibility. To do this is difficult in a society where setting yourself apart and claiming for yourself more than the next person is frowned upon, but she manages to do it, to perform this bit of illusion while apparently deluding herself she is not being duplicitous.
Stefan, who unlike his brother Otto cannot confront things head on (Otto has a bitter and emotionally violent confrontation with Mom as a teen, and she writes him off, which is perhaps more a blessing than a curse), allows his mother to pass him off as some kind of artiste, a prodigy, a budding poet genius. To be this, Stefan decides not to dedicate himself to the craft of writing but instead to the art of plagiarism. He finds a book of foreign verse translated into German, taking those translations and transforming them into something he can pass off as his own. In fact, he takes Walt Whitman’s long lines and turns them into something anodyne and simple, pleasing to the poetic palate, simple nourishment not long providing sustenance. People fall for his con, and he revels in his false celebrity even as he undergoes intense anxiety about getting caught.
In order to access the books of poetry, young Stefan must bribe the building super with bottles of Aquavit he steals from his parents. In one scene, he must lie to Kitty, who is halfway between servant and step sister to him, in order to get her out of the way when he steals the bottles. Here, early on, we sense that the author’s attitude towards Stefan may be different than the attitude Stefan has towards himself. Stefan could have found other ways to have carried out his charade, but he doesn’t. He lies to Kitty, who completely trusts him, and he chooses a hurtful lie, one that can only mean pain to her. He gets her out of the way by telling her he has seen her “disappeared” boyfriend outside looking for her.
The lies do indeed multiply. Everything is done on a quid pro quo basis, even as people pretend it is not. People trade or sell what they can to get what they need. Kind of like Capitalism, or the way that any people behave under any political system, no matter what that system professes to be about. The currency Stefan deals in is deceit, both in East Germany and, after he manages to defect, in America.
The next thing Stefan truly wants is Inge, an actress who inspires a desire in him that strikes like a thunderbolt. She represents salvation from his mundane surroundings, and even from his banal self. He courts her, but can’t keep himself from his habit of subterfuge, telling bigger and bigger lies carrying with them bigger and bigger consequences. No spoilers here, but the question I bet you will keep asking yourself is “did he really have to say (or do) that?” Time and again he lies and tells himself he has to, that he is taking part in that quid pro quo, or maybe just trying to satisfy those who need his deceptions as much as he does, but you begin to question more and more whether he really has to. Eventually, he even begins to doubt himself.
Suspense is built into the tale right in the opening pages, when a woman throws a glass of wine in Stefan’s face at a New York party, as if she knew of his dark secrets, of all that led up to his and Inge’s escape to the US. Does she? And who from the past may prove to have been just as deceitful as Stefan? It is an intricately plotted tale, and the flashes forward and back are handled skillfully. And the biggest question comes at the end. Does Stefan finally meet life head on—is his final act finally an end to all the shirking and hiding and duplicity? Does he finally act, and act truly, or does he still see himself as victim, allowing himself the easy and deceitful way out? To the book’s credit, it portrays Stefan in all his complexity so vividly that I am still trying to decide.
2015 Mike Welch