A family documentary in the form of a novel, leaving the reader to decide where the line blurs between fact and fiction.
This book by the Nobel Prize–winning German author (Peeling the Onion, 2007, etc.) ostensibly allows his eight offspring to come to terms with their father, their different mothers (four in all) and their divergent memories. Yet the novelist reinforces the spirit of fiction, if not fairy tale, from the opening “Once upon a time…” He explains that not only do all the characters in this fictional memoir have pseudonyms, but that they are “all products of their father’s whimsy, using words he has put in their mouths.” Different groupings gather in different places at different times, with the novelist functioning as director, recording the proceedings. Monologue and dialogue dominate, though there are no quotation marks or any attribution to specific speakers. The results are more like a collective memoir, though memories diverge, as “the brothers and sister wend their way into the confused tangle of their childhood.” Further complicating both narrative and memory are images they conjure from the camera of their father’s late assistant, a widow named Marie, ten years his senior, perhaps his lover, whose photography allowed him to conjure the past in precise detail. Yet her photography had a magical quality, for “with her box Mariechen could not only look into the past but also see the future.” And it could divine the wishes of all whose pictures she took and make those wishes come true, at least in photographs. For Marie, the box of the title is “sacred…like the good Lord: it sees all that was, that is, and that will be.” As the reader wonders whether the author has recast memoir as fiction, the story of Marie and her camera suggests fantasy rendered as truth.
A short, engaging and puzzling novel: “He simply dreams us up!” says a daughter, as the reader wonders what to make of these dreams.