IN THE CELLAR by Jan Philipp Reemtsma


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Dick Tracy meets Jean-Paul Sartre in this deeply philosophical, deftly written account of the author’s 33 days confined in a cellar. Reemtsma (More Than a Champion: The Style of Muhammad Ali, 1998) is one of Germany’s leading intellectuals. On March 25, 1996, while walking to his office, he was assaulted, kidnapped, and later chained up in a cellar, where he’d spend the next 33 days awaiting a ransom hand-over. Reemtsma describes his horrific experience in a narrative that blends searing emotional honesty with an almost eerie intellectual detachment. Admitting his terror and utter powerlessness, Reemtsma subjects himself to meticulous self-examination. Seemingly trivial events, such as when the kidnappers take away his wristwatch, trigger philosophical musings: with a watch “you can focus your inner resources and conquer one hour after the other. Without a watch you are in a sea of time, out of sight of land.” The author’s intellect moves comfortably from Ludwig Wittgenstein to Sylvester Stallone, from American pop music to Renaissance art. Among other things, he uses his time in the cellar to examine the Cartesian concept of the individual and rejects it. He also considers the concepts of God, fate, and death. In a real sense, Reemtsma shared his dark cellar with the entire Western intellectual tradition. Yet the book contains considerable human drama, as the kidnappers try to elude the police and the author battles boredom and despair. When the initial efforts to hand over the ransom fail, the kidnappers threaten to murder Reemtsma. Finally, the ransom is paid, and the kidnappers drive him deep into the forest: “Car stops. Trunk opens. The thought again: Are they going to shoot me now?” He’s released, only to be swarmed by a ravenous press wanting to report his “feelings.” Reemtsma has written this complex book in part to confront those feelings. A relentlessly candid examination of one man’s heart and mind.

Pub Date: Feb. 18th, 1999
ISBN: 0-375-40098-2
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 1999