Impersonation, mistaken identity, and subterfuge are the elements juggled with hellish precision in this dizzyingly intricate historical, the first of its prizewinning Mexican author’s to appear in English translation.
The byzantine structure defies brief summary, but suffice it to say that four narrators’ overlapping stories cohere to chronicle a history of deceptions that reaches back to WWI and forward to the postwar pursuit and capture of fugitive Nazis. First, German soldier-engineer Franz Kretzschmar describes the chess game, played onboard a train approaching the eastern front in 1918, which enabled Austrian Thadeus Dreyer to “win” the identity of railwayman Viktor Kretzschmar, elude military service, and survive, only to commit a horrendous crime when his hidden past threatened to overtake him. Seminarian Richard Schley confesses his assumption of the identity of (the false) Dreyer, whom Schley had recognized as his (Jewish) childhood friend. Still with us? Alikoshka Goliadkin (his surname borrowed from Dostoevsky’s labyrinthine novella The Double) relates his later wartime experiences as “Dreyer’s” subordinate, particularly regarding the “Amphitryon Project,” Dreyer’s scheme to train ordinary soldiers to “stand in” for prominent Nazi officers, thus shielding the latter from assassination attempts. Finally, “ghost writer” (well, why not?) Daniel Sanderson, a trained cryptographer, connects the murder of Polish Baron Blok-Cussewsky (who, unsurprisingly, is other than he seems) with the fate of (the false) Kretzschmar père, and raises the strong possibility that it was not “the real” Adolf Eichmann who was extradited, tried, and convicted, and executed in Jerusalem. It’s all devilishly hard to follow, but increasingly engrossing—and the payoff is a wonder to behold.
Extraordinarily clever, and quite moving. A brilliant US debut.