August 2003

David Harris


Konfidenz by Ariel Dorfman

Barbara arrives in a hotel room in Paris to a ringing phone. Over the next nine hours, she will have her past and future turned inside out, all because of a man she has never met, but who knows more about her than she does herself.

When you sat down to write this review, you were unsure about how much of the plot to reveal. But then it occurred to you that perhaps the plot elements are not even sufficiently unambiguous for you to detail them, and maybe they don't even matter. All you can do is write of your impressions and discover what you have learned from this novel.

Barbara, who from before she was born has been Susanna in the dreams of Max, known to her as Leon, has traveled from Germany on the eve of war to visit her fiance Martin, secretly part of an underground resistance.

I'm not sure that you really even understood that description yourself. Perhaps you had better attempt a clarification.

Barbara, just arrived in Paris, discovers that her correspondence with her fiance Martin over the past years has all been filtered through Max, Martin's handler in an underground resistance movement. But Max has been rewriting the letters, inserting his own messages to Barbara, who he believes to be the physical incarnation of the dream woman that has guided his life from an early age. It was Max who invited her to Paris, paying for her travel and hotel room, precipitating a meeting after many years.

Max has been waiting for this moment his whole life and he is well prepared. He doesn't want to frighten Barbara who has not consciously known of him. But has he subconsciously prepared her for their meeting? Does she realize, somewhere in the depths of her mind, that part of the letters she has been writing to Martin have actually been a correspondence with Max? Just who is Barbara, and what is her link with Susanna? Who is Max and what are his intentions? Are they the same as Leon's?

You pose these questions because they recur strongly throughout the novel. Before the end, you are convinced in turns that neither Barbara nor Leon are real - each the figment of the others' imagination. But as you kept reading, you started to untangle the web of characters, as much as possible, anyway. You begin to wonder how you are related to Max. You'd have thought that it would be clear, seeing as you wrote the novel, but it seems to have gained a life of its own, and you the author have been relegated to a bit-part.

After nine hours, Barbara is arrested by the French police, suspected of being a Nazi spy, by virtue of spending nine hours on the phone speaking in German. Only then do the characters begin to reveal their true identities, if those identities really are any truer than those of the Barbara/Susanna/Leon/Max conversation.

Are you sure you want to confuse the readers of this review in that way? Do you really want them to believe that there is no resolution to this tangle? Are you even sure that there isn't?

While the cast of characters changes form before us, readers are forced to face some deep philosophical questions. How do we know who we are? How is our identity defined? What about the identities of others? How do we know what we know? Is history what we read? Or perhaps what we heard in the quiet murmurings of those with prices on their heads?

The choices Max and Barbara make about their futures depend on the answers to those and more questions.

But so does your telling of the story... How do your answers, unwritten, perhaps not even conscious, influence your interpretation of Max and Barbara's decisions? Perhaps if you weren't you, but maybe a little more like me, the answers would be different, and the same words would tell a very different story.

Konfidenz by Ariel Dorfman
Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 156478293X
180 pages