FICTION: A LIFE LIVED IN RETROSPECT

October 27, 2019

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The iconic photograph of the Beatles, which appeared on the cover of their album Abbey Road, is a key plot point in Deborah Levy’s novel | Creative Commons
The iconic photograph of the Beatles, which appeared on the cover of their album Abbey Road, is a key plot point in Deborah Levy’s novel | Creative Commons

"When I crossed the road that day, I was a man in pieces,” ruminates the young historian Saul Adler in this spectacular work of fiction, foreshadowing the fragmentary storyline in store for us.

Deborah Levy’s latest novel, The Man Who Saw Everything, begins in 1988 with Saul, who is crossing the famous Abbey Road when he is knocked down by a car driven by a man named Wolfgang. In 2016, Saul is run over on Abbey Road again by a man named Wolfgang. Is it the same man? We don’t know. But while Saul sustains no serious injuries in the former incident, his second accident results in him being gravely injured and consequently hospitalised. Is this a case of deja vu or is it coincidence? It is the murky area between these two timelines — one beginning in 1988 and the other taking off from 2016 — in which the plot of this novel pegs itself.

In the first timeline, Saul is on Abbey Road to recreate the iconic photograph that appears on the cover of the Beatles’ album of the same name, when he meets with the accident. Although it leaves him relatively unscathed, a different jolt is in store for him later when his much younger girlfriend Jennifer, who is a photographer, dumps him on the same day. Licking his wounds, Saul goes to East Berlin to continue work on his research on cultural resistance to Nazism where he meets a master linguist named Walter, and Walter’s eccentric family.

Deborah Levy’s eighth and most complex novel, longlisted for the Booker Prize, provides a timely lesson in history and a master class in fiction writing

Levy’s eighth and most complex novel to date, longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, reads like an intricately plotted Mobius strip that plays on a loop. While dual narratives are common in modern fiction, Levy’s storylines tend to split apart and then merge, with certain details bleeding over each other. The recurrent themes are not only juxtaposed within the two storylines, but also interwoven within the plot. While recounting the story of getting hit by a car on Abbey Road to Walter, Saul tells him that his minor accident and his mother’s accident have become blurred in his mind and he is still insatiably angry at the driver who had run her over. In Saul’s mind, the driver is his mother’s assassin. Walter presciently replies that maybe Saul’s accident indicates that he needs to repeat history.

History does repeat itself in 2016, when Saul wakes up in the hospital after his second collision on Abbey Road and discovers the world is no longer as he used to know it. He is told that East and West Germany are together now, but Britain has voted to leave the European Union. The tables have turned — not only politically, but also personally for Saul as he is visited in the hospital by spectres from his past that he had left in the lurch.

With the plot centred on the road that Saul has been trying unsuccessfully to cross for almost 30 years, Levy underlines the stagnating growth of a person and the emotional blocks that he has failed to overcome. The narration is fluid and certain details frequently interchange. The concept of timelessness and ghosts is reinforced when we are told that Saul somehow already knew in 1988 that, in a year, the Berlin Wall would come down and the two Germanys would become one. Saul is a man who can make accurate prophecies about the world, but is in the dark about what happened in his own life. The spectre of his past looms heavily on his present throughout his life and it is only at the very end that the missing pieces of the puzzle — at least partially — come together.

My mother’s accident and my accident were still blurred in my mind, as was Isaac’s death, which I still could not feel. I wanted to die of shame, but everyone insisted on keeping me alive. I had to live. I had to live this moment now with Wolfgang. I don’t think I’d had a normal life since Isaac’s death, or since my meeting with Walter Muller and his family. When I crossed the road that day, I was a man in pieces. — Excerpt from the book

The novel also addresses toxic masculinity in how people perceive Saul’s striking, undeniable beauty. While it makes Jennifer treat him as a perpetual subject for her photographs, it also results in Saul having a strained relationship with his father and brother — “the men who were mortified by my freakish beauty.” They seem to consider his beauty to be a sign of suppressed masculinity and beat him to try and bring it out. In Berlin, he finds an immediate, carnal connection with Walter after identifying a similar loneliness in him: Saul has suffered at the hands of his authoritarian father while Walter has suffered because of his authoritarian fatherland.

The latter half of the novel deals with Saul in the hospital, deliriously trying to patch his past together. “What had happened between 30 and 56? Those years were lost to morphine.” It is only at the end that the fractured pieces of his life come together and we realise how the decisions he made in that transformative year of 1988 impacted so many lives around him.

Objects and patterns are recurring and sinuously layered in the splintered narrative, which is a testament to Levy’s artfully nimble craft as a writer. Certain elements such as sunflowers, a toy train and jaguars appear in both storylines, but with contextual differences. The novel incisively explores real issues such as European politics, censorship and the prohibition of desire, yet maintains an air of perennial timelessness.

This, then, is a sublimely original portrait of a life in pieces, about collective amnesia and a personal one as well. Levy presents an emotionally resonant portrait of a narcissistic man who eventually has to pay the price for his disarming beauty and his self-indulgent ways as a young man. In this wildly inventive novel, Levy aims to obliterate the boundaries of what stories can do. It is a novel that refuses to be confined to a certain genre or timeline and, in it, Levy has given us a timely lesson in history and a master class in writing fiction.

The reviewer is a Karachi-based book critic writing for several international publications

The Man Who Saw
Everything
By Deborah Levy
Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241268025
208pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 27th, 2019