Disclaimer: Received from NetGalley and the publisher, Penguin, in exchange for an honest review.
There are some novels which flow fluidly like a river. Others are curved and twisted. Others are very linear taking a route from inciting incident to resolution without a deviation. Others are shaped like a tree, branching and dividing but never losing sight of the central trunk. The Man Who Saw Everything didn’t fall into any of these shapes – was it Vonnegut who talked about the shapes of stories? The Man Who Saw Everything was jagged and fragmented, like a child’s kaleidoscope, reflecting and repeating slivers of narrative.
Now, I’m not saying the above as a judgment at all, just my attempt at a description of this slippery little novel. And echoing images from the novel itself. Our main character is an historian focusing on the psychology of tyrants, Saul Adler. He is photographed repeatedly by his girlfriend Jennifer and those photographs are fragmented and reconstituted to be displayed as A Man in Pieces in an exhibition at one point; at another point, following a car accident when crossing the Abbey Road possibly recreating the cover of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover – or maybe not – Saul tells us that the
wing mirror, from which he had glimpsed the man in pieces crossing the road, had shattered. A thousand and one slivers of glass were floating inside my head.
And this car accident is the central moment in the novel. It occurs in 1988 immediately prior to Saul’s departure for East Germany just before the Berlin Wall fell, causing minor abrasions; it also occurs in 2016, just after Britain had voted for Brexit, with catastrophic outcomes.
In 1988, Saul walks away from the accident, has somewhat vigorous sex with Jennifer before being dumped by her, and heads to the GDR. Once there, he falls in love with his translator, Walter, having a passionate and intense affair; has sex with Luna, Walter’s sister; betrays them both to the Stasi by ineptly and clumsily trying to arrange for Walter to flee the GDR with him. Or perhaps he didn’t. Or already had. Or will. Or, maybe, won’t.
Saul’s unreliability as a narrator is hinted at in the first half of the book as he tells Walter and Luna when and how the Berlin Wall will fall as if it were – as it is – an historical event. By the time we reach the second half, set in 2016, it becomes explicit and disorienting: the repetition of the Abbey Road accident, the recurring motifs of toy trains and pineapple, the slipping into the present of Rainer and Wolf or Wolfgang, as well as Walter – characters we had met in the 1988 narrative – and Saul’s inability to separate the two time frames. The 1988 narrative was, surely, at least in part a delusional, morphine-fuelled, twisted, dreamlike reconstruction – or was it? Memory, like time, becomes a slippery affair for Saul and, therefore the reader, as we learn that some deaths which had been central to our understanding had not actually occurred, and some tragedies of immense import have been forgotten. Some places are still rooted, but the person with whom Saul is sharing them shifts.
For a novel entitled The Man Who Saw Everything, seeing and overseeing and spying and camera lenses and watching abound through it, and yet the impossibility of seeing anything seems at the heart of the novel.
It is one of those novels where you feel compelled to add “Or was it?” at the end of every statement about it, because nothing is ever fully resolved or reconnected. There is no reliable point of view – and by the end of the novel, you wonder whether it matters: the world within Saul’s head, jagged and disorienting as it is, has a lyricism to it which you’d fear the tedium of the mundane world would burst.
Levy’s writing is taut and economical here, and Saul is apparently forbidden from mentioning physical descriptions of Jennifer, although his own long hair and freakish beauty are referenced repeatedly.
Whilst I applaud the control and the depth of the novel, I find it hard to give this a five star rating. It appealed to be intellectually rather than emotionally (although the final chapters did get there) or sensually; Saul was a little too much like a cipher rather than a character for certainly the first half of the novel.
As a longlisted book for the Man Booker, I wouldn’t be convinced that it would progress to the shortlist, save for the weight of the name of the author, Deborah Levy.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Date: 29th August 2019