The latest from the Nobel Peace Prize–winning author of Night(1960) asks big questions about good and evil, art and reality, yet ultimately finds its narrator concluding, “Suddenly, I don’t understand anything anymore. Why life? Why death?”
The Jewish protagonist is a New York newspaper drama critic who finds himself in the unlikely position of covering a murder trial. (Both of the reporters on the court beat for the paper are conveniently unavailable.) The case is both simple and unfathomable. A 24-year-old philosophy student from Germany receives an unexpected visitor, an older German who introduces himself as the student’s uncle. They decide to go away for a week together in the Adirondacks. The student returns without the older man, whose dead body is later found, leading to the murder charge. Though some had heard the two argue, there is no motive, no weapon, no deeper understanding of their relationship. Was the death an act of murder, suicide or an accident? The defendant is no help, proclaiming himself (as a philosophy student would), “not guilty but not innocent.” The critic’s obsession with the case (which doesn’t really commence until a third of the way through the novel) upsets his theater-loving wife, but it leads to all sorts of grand pronouncements about the courtroom as theater as well as larger questions such as, “Was life a string of roles?” Long after the end of the trial, a meeting between the critic and the defendant resolves some mysteries, yet by that time other, related mysteries have arisen concerning the critic’s own identity. For no apparent reason, the first-person narrative occasionally shifts into the third person, as the protagonist ponders “the vague feeling that his life or the meaning of life had escaped him,” and asks, “Since I’m not the man I thought I knew, who am I?”
A slim novel that’s heavy on philosophy.