By Hedi Kaddour (Trans: David Coward)
Harvill Secker, £20
Part spy-thriller, part novel of ideas, Hedi Kaddour’s huge, ambitious novel takes on the history of the 20th century, from the First World War to 1991. It tells the epic story of the dream of Communism and its failure through the lives of a group of French and German intellectuals, some of whom turn out to be spies. Being a French novel, though, it is as interested in discussing Flaubert and Marx as it is in espionage.
These characters live the life of their times. We meet Max, a French journalist, during a French cavalry charge in 1914, and he is later be glimpsed at the Versailles peace treaty, at Munich, and jousting with great writers. He is one of the first to get his hands on a copy of the Khrushchev report. He even survives the Hindenburg disaster. Max is a French intellectual’s version of Zelig.
Every few years, we return to Waltenberg, a grand hotel in the heart of Europe, where Hans, a Thomas Mann-like German writer, falls in love with Lena, a beautiful opera singer (and spy). In an English novel, this might be the heart of a romantic thriller, but Waltenberg is more concerned with two other encounters at the hotel: the appearance of the brilliant spymaster Lilstein, who survives the German camps and the Gulag, and “you”, a French spy at the heart of De Gaulle’s government.
Waltenberg is being sold as a spy thriller but it could not be more different from John Le Carré. It is a world away from George Smiley’s very English atmosphere of codes, plots and suppressed emotions. Kaddour’s is a novel in which spying is almost incidental to ideas about history and Communism. It is not driven by suspense; we hardly know what’s been done, let alone who dunnit. The “mole” does not even appear until page 225. Instead, this is a book about history and its failed utopias. There are intense discussions about Malraux and Flaubert, and references to everyone from Rosa Luxemburg to Mao.
It is not an easy read. The long sentences, indifferent to full stops, are sometimes a struggle. Often, it is hard to know who is talking. Nevertheless, it is an extraordinary novel. Imagine Smiley’s People rewritten by Thomas Mann, and then updated by WG Sebald (a “Colonel Sebald” pops up a couple of times). There are pages, sometimes even chapters, which are as good as anything written in years. But prepare for a long, tough journey.
David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer