September 2005

Emily Grosvenor


Spies by Marcel Beyer

Everyone who harbors an intense interest in someone else's life is a spy; espionage, after all, has curiosity at its root. The act of spying, of gathering details in an attempt to understand the whole, lies at the heart of Spies, the second novel by German author Marcel Beyer. Named by the New Yorker as one of the best young contemporary European novelists, Beyer gives new hope that German literature can reach a wider, international audience and that spy novels don't have to involve governments and wire taps.

Reading Spies is like watching a random slide show of someone else's family. As each new frame comes up, you learn more about the subjects, the time in which they lived, the contours of their relationships. But in Spies, the slides are maddeningly out of place. For all the bright colors, all the smiles, there is a sense of foreboding underlying every picture.

The novel revolves around the shared experience of four cousins growing up in post-war Germany, one of whom is an unnamed young boy and our narrator. The children all have brown eyes -- a rare characteristic for which they are teased incessantly at school -- as well as a profound desire to meet their grandfather, a man who has long before cut ties with all of his family after the death of his first wife. This dead grandmother, a much-acclaimed opera singer in her day, is a source of mystery and bewilderment for the children. Who is this woman who gave them their brown eyes? Why doesn't their grandfather want to be part of their lives? They are determined to find out and spend much of their free time playing detective.

The children's story is interlaced with that of the grandfather, a Luftwaffe pilot who flew on secret missions during the Spanish Civil War, and the dead grandmother, the fiance he left behind to pine in his absence. As a couple, they too have secrets -- secrets they share, secrets they keep from each other. When he finally returns from the war, the secrets he still carries begin to gnaw away at her.

The grandfather's relationship with his second wife forms another storyline in the book, a counterpoint to the children's investigations. Haunted by the very idea of the first wife and tormented by her husband's relationship his grandchildren, she masters the art of speculation -- becoming quite easily the worst spy of the book. The children she so abhors do their own share of guessing, concocting stories to explain away, and eventually lay blame for, their grandfather's absence. Years later, as adults, they are still trying to piece together the clues.

In some ways, Spies approaches the problem of how future generations of Germans deal with the burden of the Nazi era by searching for the hidden truth in their families' past. Probing the lives of the grandparent generation is no new thing in Germany, where the grandchildren of World War II veterans are, like their parents, still trying to find out how their own families were implicated in Nazi crimes. Beyer, however, is more interested in how secrets and speculation steer family history. Indeed, Nazi Germany forms just a muddled if ominous backdrop for his family drama. The truths the children uncover while trying to unlock the secrets of their family's past become personal, haunting clues that just seems to open up more questions.

But we are lucky folks, since we are privy to both the narrator's quest to find out about his grandmother and to an omniscient storyteller who seeks out many of the characters' secrets. Beyer turns over the cards so slowly and with such finality that each new clue seems to carry equal weight -- though more often than not, the truth mixes eerily with the stories each character tells. In essence, that is what sets this book apart from the pack. It speaks to the spy in all of us, to the readers who think they just might learn something about themselves, clue by clue, by reading fiction.

As translations from German go, Spies is one of the best of recent years. Beyer is a poet, and his sentences simmer with lyrical meaning and a sense of urgency that propels the story forward. Brion Mitchell's elegant English-language translation will, apart from a few minor turns of phrase, have readers forgetting they are reading a translation. Some might be thrown off by the novel's beginning, with its extreme focus on the children's young lives told through the inquisitive voice of the young boy. Especially in this first section, the author's attempt to lay subtle groundwork for later developments is perhaps too impressionistic to hold most readers' attention. Those able to get past this first small hurdle will be rewarded with a novel as engrossing as it is befuddling, and a story that gratifies while at the same time reminding that sometimes the truth is less believable than the stories we tell ourselves.

Spies by Marcel Beyer
ISBN: 0151008590
288 Pages