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SPIES by Marcel Beyer


by Marcel Beyer & translated by Breon Mitchell

Pub Date: July 11th, 2005
ISBN: 0-15-100859-0
Publisher: Harcourt

The metaphor of espionage is put to good effect, in an intricate tale by German author Beyer.

The unnamed narrator here pieces together the complex history of his estranged grandfather’s life as part of a “game” he shares with the three cousins (actually, this only child’s de facto siblings) he grew up with in a small German village. Recurring flashbacks tell of a girl who forged a career as an opera singer, attracting the attention of a former childhood friend, who in 1936 flew secret Luftwaffe missions in support of besieged royalist forces during the Spanish Civil War. What the cousins learn—or think they learn—decades later is that their bereaved grandfather (the aforementioned pilot) took a second wife: a choleric “Old Lady” who undertook to destroy all her husband’s memories of his first wife and prevent any communication among him, his children and their children (i.e., the cousins). All this, and much more (including the real nature of their grandfather’s loss and grief), becomes clear only very gradually, as Beyer (The Karnau Tapes, 1997) circles around his story’s hidden core, moving backward and forward in several time periods and from one to another of his characters’ viewpoints. The children who seek to recover their own history thus become “spies” observing and speculating about their elders—as were the latter themselves, in circumstances shaped by both the wars of the 1930s and ’40s and by the exigencies of two destroyed marriages. Several recurring images (a peephole, a camera eye, “spores” floating in the air, a ceramic figure of a Spanish dancer, a model airplane, numerous mysterious family photographs) become clues to the mysteries that challenge the cousins—and the reader—until the story’s (quite nicely handled) climactic revelations.

A bit labored and opaque, but atmospheric, increasingly engrossing and ultimately very rewarding.