From one sentence to the next, the POV might shift, the tone and language might change, it's never clear what actions or events are real and what are the imaginings (or mis-rememberings) of one or more of the characters. It's a maddeningly complex book that requires close attention to every sentence. To read it quickly would take a smarter, clearer-headed person than your humble servant.
I could never write a book like this. It's a masterpiece, a work of crazy genius.
Here's a sample of the prose. In this scene, Enzian and Katje, two former camp prisoners of the SS Oberkommander Blicero, are meeting. During their captivity, Blicero involved them both in games of sadomasochistic sexual abuse. In a twisted Stockholm syndrome, both of them came to love Blicero. Now, with Blicero gone - possibly on the loose in the post-war chaos of 1945 Germany, possibly dead - Katje is making her way to freedom (and to get revenge on a would-be assassin along the way). She meets Enzian, who is now trapped in the role of commander/mascot/prophet of a group of semi-organized refugees. As they circle around each other, trying to determine how much they can trust, they discuss Blicero.
"You must have seen him more recently than I." He speaks quietly. She is surprised at his politeness. Disappointed: she was expecting more force. Her lip has begun to lift. "How did he seem?"
"Alone." Her brusque and sideways nod. Gazing back at him with the best neutrality she can be certain of in the circs. She means, You were not with him, when he needed you.
"He was always alone."
She understands then that it isn't timidity, she was wrong. It is decency. The man wants to be decent. He leaves himself open. (So does she, but only because everything that might hurt has long been numbed out. There's small risk for Katje.) But Enzian risks what former lovers risk whenever the Beloved is present in fact or in word: deepest possibilities for shame, for sense of loss renewed, for humiliation and mockery. Shall she mock? Has he made that too easy - and then, turning, counted on her for fair play? Can she be as honest as he, without risking too much?
"Blicero and I," he begins softly, watching her over burnished cheekbones, cigarette smoldering in his curled right hand, "we were only close in certain ways. There were doors I did not open. Could not. Around here, I play an omniscient. I'd say don't give me away, but it wouldn't matter. Their minds are made up. I am the Berlin Snoot supreme, Oberhauptberlinerschnauze Ensian. I know it all, and they don't trust me. They gossip in a general way about me and Blicero, as yarns to be spun - the truth wouldn't change either their distrust or my Unlimited Access. They'd only be passing a story along, another story. But the truth must mean something to you.
"The Blicero I loved was a very young man, in love with empire, poetry, his own arrogance. Those all must have been important to me once. What I am now grew from that. A former self is a fool, an insufferable ass, but he's still human, you'd no more turn him out than you'd turn out any other kind of cripple, would you?"
Terrific book. It's a difficult read, but terrific.
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