Bear with me, because I’m going to start this review with a discussion of The DaVinci Code.
Remember the slightly weird-albeit-necessary way that novel presented us all its necessary heaps of context and back story – by having characters sit in a room for hours on end discussing the history of Vatican corruption and biblical revision? We didn’t really notice how boring it was at the time, so wrapped up in the nitty-gritty details as we were. But later, after we’d had a chance to decompress, what we saw (or what I did) was how thinly written every mouthpiece was for those thick slices of history that Dan Brown was so ready to divulge, how wooden every character really was in the wake of a novel seemingly motivated not at all by character but by agenda.
Cue Kino, Jurgen Fauth’s cinematic, fun, more 20th-century answer to 2003’s phenomenon. I don’t believe that Fauth had any intention of writing a debut that fits that bill, but that’s exactly why it works. It is, somehow, a completely unpretentious period piece, thick with history but which maintains that cinematic quality. Cinematic, of course, because it not only presents us with a rich account of filmmaking in the Weimar Republic, but does so in a way that plays out like a movie, with realized protagonists and antagonists — and, just as often, the mystery of which characters might fall into which of those categories at any given time. It’s an adventure steeped in the tragic details of the postwar world, but still a book that somehow manages an overall funness. Mina Koblitz, our more-flawed-than-unflawed 21st-century heroine, would likely be at home on HBO’s Girls, a faux-Bohemian law school dropout Brooklynite who lives off her new husband’s money as she struggles to figure out just what it is she cares about. Home from a cancelled honeymoon and with her husband, Sam, running a deathly fever in the hospital, Mina finds a mysterious delivery on her doorstep: the original canisters of film from a movie Mina’s grandfather directed – a film thought lost to history, burned by the Nazis before Klaus Koblitz fled the country to come to Hollywood. Mina is forced to choose between the ticking time bomb of her grandfather’s last surviving film (coupled with a chance to learn more about her hazy family origins) and honoring her very recent wedding vows by staying beside Sam, a ticking time bomb in his own right, as he hovers in uncertain sickness. The tug-of-war is uncomfortable; Fauth makes sure you feel it.
He is, of course, an accomplished writer, despite Kino betraying what read to me like some first-novel blemishes. Dialogue feels rehearsed into veritable monologues in DaVinci Codestyle at times, when sufficient info isn’t conveyed by the more clever avenues of epistolary-format emails between Mina and her husband Sam or the personal journal entries of Kino himself, pulled from a nearly half-century-old diary he was forced to keep throughout his stay in a mental institution. Characters are occasionally seen taking somewhat confusingly elaborate actions in the modern-day (2003) portions of the book, in lieu of characters whipping out cell phones to get the answers they need. But Fauth’s ambition coming into his debut novel is already so vast – the seamless mirroring of the Weimar and the World Wide Web, The Iraq War and World War II, the history of filmmaking and the uncertain future of it – that his earnest efforts create something so darn likable and engrossing that it’s hard to care about any hairline cracks that might show. Besides, Fauth seems to call out these elements himself with a portion of the literally crippled Kino’s journal in several tongue-in-cheek, unapologetic moments:
The missing leg had taught me about flaws early on, about living with limitations. I took it as a sign that I was special, and when I began writing for the movies, I figured that I wanted them to be like my body, unique through their mistakes and missing limbs. Watching a perfect movie is like climbing a smooth wall–there’s nowhere for your fingers to grab hold. I was always looking for something broken, a scar, a sign of struggle or damage, something that didn’t fit, a crack that would create a space for everything that wasn’t perfect.
With these footholds and spaces, what we’ve got on a silver platter is a pseudohistory lesson, a dark comedy, and perhaps most principally, a story about the legacies (and tightly held grudges) of the family unit. I won’t begin to ask how Fauth can so faithfully render a cast of relatives so ill at ease. Even when you know where Kinomight be headed, there’s enough to keep you guessing and moving. Mina can be grating as hell with her incongruous moments of apathy or crassness, but at least we can understand her frustrations and the bind she never chose to be in. It’s her involvement in the Koblitz genealogy that brings the book to its interesting peak question of intellectual property, the nature of what’s possible to share, create, and own, or even to keep. I have no answers of my own by the end, but choose instead to ascribe to Kino’s own glowing declaration, in his only on-screen appearance:
“Remember, no matter what, Mulberry Island remains. Anything is still possible.” Someone…mumbled something off-camera, and Kino waved them off angrily. “Cut!” he shouted, and the screen went black.