THE KARNAU TAPES by Marcel Beyer


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 A powerful first novel suffering from weaknesses--winner of Germany's Ernst Willner Prize--describes the final days of WW II from two intriguingly blended viewpoints. The story's primary narrator, Hermann Karnau, is a skilled sound engineer in his late 20s who first drifts toward complicity with the Nazi war machine when he's hired to help rig up a complicated public-address system for a huge political rally. Obsessed by ``the mystery of the human voice,'' Karnau is easily enlisted in increasingly bizarre projects: ``front-line duty'' taping the sounds of combat; recording the voices of dying patients in military hospitals; and, finally, attempting to preserve for posterity the words of the FÅhrer in his bunker as Russian armies approach Berlin. More improbably, Karnau is engaged to tend the five young children of a prominent national figure (identifiable as Joseph Goebbels) whose wife is giving birth again, during which time Karnau befriends the eldest child (and precocious surrogate mother to her younger siblings), eight-year-old Helga--whose narration of the chaos that afflicts her family is juxtaposed with Karnau's story. Though the parallel stories are adroitly distinguished, Beyer waits far too long to inform the reader that Karnau is remembering his version from the vantage point of 1992, when, as a ``retired security man,'' he's obliged to explain the function of a just-discovered ``sound archive'' connected to several municipal buildings in Dresden. Helga's story, by contrast, is presented in real time, as it is happening. Nor is this technical inconsistency the only flaw. The novel is further weakened by the excess space given to Karnau's often redundant ruminations on the natures of sound and speech. Nevertheless, Beyer creates an interest in his characters and makes us fear for them, and he shapes his story toward a nerve- rattling final crescendo. A good novel that might have been a much better one.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-15-100255-X
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1997


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