Friday, 10 April 2009

Me and Kaminski - Daniel Kehlmann

Read: June 2008

Me and Kaminski is a strange book: a satire that is not outlandishly funny, a novella with the plot scope of a novel but barely 50,000 words in which to tell it, and a road trip without any sense of place or adventure. And yet, despite all these oddities, it is both readable and enjoyable. Daniel Kehlmann, whose first English translated novel Measuring the World led to the Guardian describing him as a “literary wunderkind” returns here with a deft, nuanced satire of the vagaries of the art world. In 150 very short pages, Me and Kaminski treads that fine line between appearances and reality, all the while questioning what is real, and what imagined. And in his central protagonist, Kehlmann has created a thoroughly, lovably detestable character.

We join the action as art critic Sebastian Zöllner journeys into the French Alps to meet Manuel Kaminski, an ailing and reclusive artist for whom he has secured the honour of writing a biography. As he sits on the train, Zöllner works on a scathing review of the latest book by another critic, Hans Bahring. He sees a fellow passenger reading the book and when told that the passenger is finding it interesting, responds “That’s because you’re not an expert.

Such is the arrogance of Sebastian Zöllner. And it doesn’t stop there. When finally he arrives at Kaminski’s house we find he has turned up two days early. Kaminski’s daughter, Miriam, asks him to leave as they are in the middle of a gathering but he imposes himself on the small party, certain that his joviality has “made everyone happy”. Needless to say it has not, but Zöllner is blind to his failings. The next day he returns, only to be rebuffed by the news that Miriam is going away for the night. Sensing an opportunity Zöllner returns a couple of hours later, bribes the housekeeper to go out, and then proceeds to rifle through Kaminski’s study and gallery, leafing through sketches and paintings as though they are scrap paper.

Already it is clear that Zöllner is a particularly dislikeable sort of fellow. And as the plot progresses he grows even more so. He is bad tempered, demanding and rude. He has neither a passion for art nor professional pride in a job well done. He is, in short, a mercenary fame-and-fortune-seeker of the very worst sort – disreputable even for a journalist. All he wants is to get the dramatic story of a reclusive artist, sit back and wait until he dies, and then cash-in by publishing it. As such he is thoroughly unqualified to write the biography of a man so completely different to him, a man who still thinks exclusively about art, who cries easily, and has spent most of his life believing that the lost love of his life, a woman named Therese, is dead.

And yet somehow amidst his stumbling research, Zöllner has come upon one piece of fascinating and valuable news: Therese is alive and living in northern Germany. And when Kaminski proves a senile old disappointment, Zöllner resorts to revealing his trump card and soon the two are setting off on a road trip across Europe, with Zöllner all the while dreaming of the grand reunion which he has orchestrated, a scene which he sees as the perfect emotional denouement for his book.

What follows is a chaotic, comically futile road trip, in which the two wilful and cunning men find in each others’ personalities everything they thoroughly dislike. But between the enigmatic but slippery Kaminski – whose increasing, but dubious, blindness inspired his success and fame – and the dislikeable Zöllner, Me and Kaminski has a central relationship of real charm. And while Zöllner ponders how he will get anything of value out of his cash-cow, he is missing the unique opportunity to get the real inside story of the real Manuel Kaminski.

In only 150 pages Me and Kaminski is a fast-paced jaunt across Europe with a protagonist who it is a delight to detest. Zöllner is not only self deceiving but also self-destructive; at every turn his arrogance alienates those who might help him. And in return, others are constantly sending him in the wrong direction, making a fool of him. There are few things more rewarding to the reader than seeing these little acts of defiance. And although the target of Kehlmann’s satire – the artificial world of art – makes points that are neither original nor particularly interesting, the subtlety of his writing is a real achievement. We read the novel through the eyes of the Sebastian Zöllner, and thus initially take his opinions as gospel, but as the plot develops and we become more acquainted with his character, we begin to realise that everything is skewed by his self-serving mind. Characters he sees as bad we begin to realise are probably quite nice people; truths he sees as obvious become increasingly questionable. Hans Bahring, the absent presence and Zöllner’s rival, is like a mirror image of our protagonist, a man who begins as a target of derision but as our estimation of Zöllner diminishes, so he becomes the faceless figure for journalistic integrity.

There are problems with this book however. Despite being a road trip novel it has no sense of place or any real description. It could have been taking place in Eastern Europe or Russia for all I could tell! And as a work of literature it suffers because of this. In everything except length, Me and Kaminski is a novel. It could really have used being a little longer, a little slower. Because it is so short everything happens a little quickly, almost without precedent. This is most notable with the grand climax which sees Zöllner undergo a strange change of heart. But there has been nothing leading up to this, the reader is left uncertain where the change has come from. It comes too quickly and strikes one as thoroughly contrary to the rest of the action. Or perhaps Khelmann has been really clever and Zöllner’s apparent transformation is as cosmetic as everything else he does, all about creating the right image, the pretence of success. Perhaps following his brief fling with honour and humanity he is ready to return to his sad, pitiable, arrogant life. It would be characteristic of Khelmann’s panache for understatement if this is the case.

With its satellite cast of art-world poseurs, eccentrics and hangers-on, Me and Kaminski is a satirical poke at the glib art world and those unsavoury leeches who suck their livings from it.

5 out of 10

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