The narrator of this novel is an angel who tells the stories of two people, remote from each other in time and space.
The story of Johann Klarfeld is set in the eighteenth century. Born and raised in a provincial German town, Johann leaves his mother and his siblings at the age of fifteen. In the course of his wanderings through German principalities and Flemish towns, he works as a barber’s assistant, then joins Count Frangipan’s cavalry, fighting in the war first on the French side and then on the German side as an orderly and is accused of espionage and arrested. He settles down for a while in The Hague, where he works for a painter of Italian origin and falls in love with his blind daughter. Rich in mysterious and fantastic elements, this story is reminiscent of the works of German Romantics of the likes of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Goethe.
The biography of the other character, Berta Józsa, a Hungarian girl born in 1943, and her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, provides a glimpse into the fate of a Hungarian family in the twentieth century who strove to survive that unpredictable and cruel century by trying to suppress and forget the past. “For although the world is close at hand and we have only to reach out to touch its furthermost nooks and crannies, it is no longer our home, nor will it ever be,” says the angel at the beginning of the book. It is this homelessness that is the main theme of both stories, a homelessness that both characters try to battle, to no avail.
The sense of not being at home in the world, the fear of being stigmatized, and the feelings of anxiousness and terror about one’s Jewish identity, dissipating over time yet impossible to eradicate – all these elements bind the two stories together into one, unforgettable, novel.
For although the world is close at hand and we have only to reach out to touch its furthermost nooks and crannies, it is no longer our home, nor will it ever be.
ISBN 978 963 67 6475 3
Jelenkor, 2009, hardback
240 pages, 2700 HUF
English, Yale University Press
English excerpt available