Norbert Zähringer is one of those writers often described as “underestimated”. He was estimated highly enough for the German Book Prize longlist, but didn’t make it to the final six. But I found his book one of the most intriguing of the full twenty candidates and read the whole thing, initially for work reasons but getting sucked in more and more by the hour. In fact, by a strange twist of postal fate, I have two copies of Einer von vielen. So if you’d like one, let me know via the comments section below. First come, first served.
Oh, and it’s worth it. The book is a love song to the movies, called “Pynchon-esque” by the critics. The title means “One of Many”, partly no doubt in reference to the fact that there are a hell of a lot of characters in here. It’s a veritable Ben Hur of a book in fact, but in Zähringer’s case it’s the extras he focuses on rather than the stars. Very kindly, he provides us with a hand-written map of the names: I count 77, but I may be wrong.
The novel opens with a prologue, in which we meet Edison Frimm as an old man and watch him failing to commit suicide during a minor earthquake in California. And then the book kicks off for real with Frimm’s birth under a German table in the Mojave desert. At the same time, Siegfried Heinze is born in Berlin, bedded down on a pile of banknotes, his supposed father murdered the very same night. The date is significant: 1 September 1923, when the newspapers reported on the first talking film and another earthquake destroyed Tokyo and Yokohama.
From here on, we follow Eddie Frimm, the Berlin detective Mauser charged with investigating the Heinze case, his exiled Armenian-Georgian-German neighbour Bebo Globodajarian, and a whole host of other people whose paths criss-cross in Los Angeles and Berlin, essentially from the thirties to the end of the war. In between, an unnamed first-person narrator chips in with tales of a Berlin bar and its regulars in 1993. One starts to wonder what on earth they’re doing there, but it’s worth trusting in the book’s structure – despite the many, many strands, all will come together in the end.
Frimm lands up working as an extra and odd-job boy on Hollywood B-movies, seeing the seamier side of the stars but falling in love with an actress who failed to make the leap from silent films to the talkies. When America joins the war he is put into the army’s Motion Picture Unit. But after a number of staged flights over the Shetlands, another team hits the movie theatres and his crew is abandoned to actual service. His character is probably the subtlest in a book that by necessity works with broad brushstrokes. He never knows quite what he wants, always needs a director telling him what to do – be it his beloved mother or Koga, a Japanese gardener, or Bebo, or in the end a pair of German boys on a lonely bridge.
Meanwhile Mauser acts out his very own film noir, chasing a mass-murderer in Berlin. True to the genre, he’s a hero who gets his hands dirty, warning his Jewish boss to leave the country before a raid and frequenting dens of iniquity. But there is more depth to him; after watching on as one Jewish boy is taken away, he intervenes on a later occasion to save a life, putting his own at risk. Mauser does track down the killer in the end, but among all the death and barbarity of the Nazi state and its war, his own personal M. is of little concern.
Our post-Berlin Wall band of men is signed up as extras too, tying up a few key loose ends but serving more, I felt, as a counterweight to all this history. These sections are more like the young German writing readers may be familiar with – a whimsical story rich in atmosphere but low on action. As such, I found they give the book an added dimension, making it more than a beautifully constructed historical blockbuster.
I love Zähringer’s humour. There are farcical elements, such as Mauser having to put up a series of barriers in Berlin’s sewers to protect the Führer from underground attack. There is wry humour, with the other men on Frimm’s air force base playing poker for a spot on the movie plane. There are games of “spot the film star” hidden in the text for added fun. There are characters so odd they are funny. And above all, the moments when the countless riddles are solved made me laugh out loud. There are dark moments too, times of war and disaster movingly portrayed with a breathlessness I hadn’t expected.
And Zähringer is one of those few German writers whose horizons include “ethnic” characters. Bebo leaves Nazi Germany on a ship loaded with Jewish refugees, works selling hotdogs in LA, only to be shot down over Berlin and barely escape a Soviet camp. Koga is another character in a far-off country, interned during the war. And in the 1990s Zähringer gives us Yusuf, a Turkish West Berliner obsessed with Willy Brandt, who ends up an extra playing an East German “encouraging” the fall of the Wall. His previous novel Als ich schief was not dissimilar in that respect, reflecting a more diverse Germany than many writers seem to perceive. And it too played with the power of coincidence.
I’m finding it hard to explain the book and my enthusiasm for it, I have to admit. It has light and darkness, is intelligent but doesn’t require a PhD to enjoy it. And it’s a darned shame it didn’t make the shortlist – because it would work perfectly in English too.