Legacy mayhem

By David Herman, March 11, 2010

Take a mournful shlemiel from Austria. Drop him in Venezuela where he has gone to collect an inheritance from his uncle, a Jewish refugee from Hamburg, start a violent coup and stir in a cast of vivid characters, shysters, swindlers, lawyers and even a wonder-rabbi, and then you get a sense of The Inheritance (Pushkin Press, £10) by Peter Stephan Jungk, published in German a decade ago, and now superbly translated by Michael Hofmann.

Daniel Loew is a middle-aged, Jewish poet. Apart from his father, he is the only surviving relative of Alexander Stecher, a tough old bird who got out of Germany in 1939, went to South America and made a small fortune. His relationship with Daniel is built up in a series of flashbacks. When Stecher dies at 90, he leaves his estate to Daniel, who comes to Caracas to collect what is rightly his.

But what has happened to the secret bank accounts his uncle stored away in Hamburg and Panama? And then there's the military coup. Daniel quickly realises that he can't trust anyone. Not Esther Moreno, the mysterious but very friendly woman, staying in the same hotel. Not the Jewish community leader, and perhaps not even Daniel's many lawyers.

Part legal thriller, with secret bank accounts all over the world, and part comedy about the swindlers and the swindled, The Inheritance is set against a dark, historical background of Jewish refugees forced to flee from Germany in the 1930s, and a colourful world of Sephardi South American Jews.

There is just one point where this clever, lively book goes flat. Having taken the story to Panama City, with its labyrinthine, secret bank accounts, Jungk loses interest in Daniel's uncle.

This could be the one to bring Jungk an English readership

The flashbacks to Daniel's youth cease and the narrative loses energy and becomes increasingly melancholy. Daniel becomes depressing rather than interesting. The fascinating mysteries of his uncle's past are left unexplored.

Even so, one hopes that this, the third of Jungk's novels to be translated, will be his breakthrough for English-speaking readers.

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 12:45pm, September 5 2010