I’d been reading things that didn’t impress me, that didn’t excite me, that frustrated me, and feeling annoyed with German publishers for saving all their good titles up for the autumn season. And then came this, Michael Wildenhain’s new novel Das Lächeln der Alligatoren. Like the other two of his books I’ve read, this one is set mainly in West Berlin, mainly in the seventies.
It starts, however, on the island of Sylt. Matthias and his mother are visiting his brother in a home for the disabled where he lives. Fifteen-year-old Matthias falls hard for a young woman who cares for his brother, Marta. Three years his senior, she seems relaxed about his obvious attempts to play peeping Tom and even kisses him, always in control of every situation. This opening section is vibrant with teenage promise and threat, laying out the blueprint for Matthias’s story as a whole, one of sordid shocks, guilty conscience and confusion over Marta and her motivations. Wildenhain employs his usual accomplished prose here to create a piece that would stand alone as great, evocative writing.
Part two, however, comes crashing down on us with the weight of lost innocence. Five years on, Matthias’s mother is dead and he rejects his absent father to move in with his uncle, a successful surgeon and professor. Now a student, he meets Marta again in a lecture. These are the heady days when students stood up against their teachers, questioning authority and reading and writing political flyers. We get a palpable sense of what it must have been like at West Berlin’s Technical University at the time, close to the zoo with its wafting scents of wild animals on the air.
Matthias and Marta spend more and more time together, but it’s not quite clear who’s pursuing whom and to what end. What does become obvious to both us and narrator Matthias is that she’s heavily involved in militant left-wing politics, Wildenhain’s specialist subject, if you like. And then comes the novel’s pivoting moment, something we’ve been half-dreading from the very beginning, and it seems that Matthias has been used all along for political ends.
His uncle is murdered in a botched political kidnapping attempt, and Matthias finds out more about his past – not the kind of things you’d want to find out about a man you idolized. Does that change the way he feels about Marta? He’s unsure.
A third section takes place at some point after 9/11. Matthias is now a celebrated professor himself, exploring the similarities and differences between artificial intelligence and autism. Once again, Marta appears out of the blue and things get complicated. She is wanted by the authorities, but encourages Matthias to visit his brother. I’m very impressed by the grey zone Wildenhain creates around Marta – is she a caring figure who brings the brothers together, or is she nothing but a force of destruction? It’s impossible to say, and that’s what makes this a great novel.
That subtlety above all, but there are other factors (and other equivocal characters). Wildenhain’s construction is amazing, with seeds sown from page one, gradually, gradually pulling back to reveal the big moral picture. And there’s the writing, the rhythmic sentences, the expert changes of pace, the sex scenes, the philosophical questions, the animal metaphor sparingly applied, the light repetition, the binoculars as leifmotif, the shots fired in each section, Matthias and his doubt in himself, something he never escapes even as a more cynical older man capable of falling asleep in the theatre during plays about left-wing terrorism.
I read the book with a growing sense of horror, that wonderful and terrifying feeling that life must go on hold for the duration and that anything else is banal. It’s not a thriller as such but it has a similar undertow, certainly building tension as the plot unfolds. My nitpick would be that I don’t like the title – it seems to answer the question of where to place Marta on the moral spectrum a little too unequivocally. Ignore it and read this book for its philosophically sophisticated take on German twentieth-century history and one character’s unusual family.