The Pages by Hugo Hamilton review – if a book could talk

The Austrian writer Joseph Roth, best remembered for his masterpiece Radetzky March, anticipates several of its themes in his third novel, Rebellion, first published in 1924. It tells the story of Andreas Pum, a survivor of the first world war who has “lost a leg and been given a medal”. The book is at once grainily realistic and a kind of parable, and shows how an initially accepting spirit is turned towards fury by disappointment. Pum clings to life only “in order to rebel: against the world, against authorities, against the government, against God”.

For his 10th novel, Hugo Hamilton, the son of a German mother and an Irish father, has seized on Rebellion as a way of developing Roth’s preoccupations with the heartlessness of state politics while deepening his own commitment to writing about nationalism and identity. He uses the adventurous device of employing a copy of the first edition as his narrator. “I came to life,” it tells the reader, “between the wars … Between what was first thought to be the fields of honour and later became the fields of shame.” The Pages is a peculiar sort of audio book, ingeniously sympathetic to its inspiration.

At the heart of things is a pretty straightforward mystery yarn: Lena Knacht, an artist who lives in Manhattan with her husband Mike, is the daughter of an Irish mother and a German father, from whom she has inherited the copy of Rebellion. At the back of the book is a hand-drawn diagram: is it the vital clue in some kind of treasure hunt? There’s only one way to find out – by going to the location herself. Handily, she has an exhibition opening soon in Germany.

Even more handily, this remarkable book can provide at least some of the backstory to the diagram it contains. We learn that it originally belonged to David Gluckstein, a Jewish professor of German literature in Berlin; he gave it to Lena’s grandfather, one of his students, for safekeeping during the first episode of Nazi book burning in May 1933. The book is thus a witness to history, as well as a representative of it – a role that expands when it is stolen from Lena on arrival in Berlin, then recovered by Armin, an architectural researcher who earns his living “measuring empty spaces” to see if new housing can be built.

Armin and his sister Madina are originally from Chechnya, and were wounded in the war of the mid-90s – Madina, who lost a leg, now plays accordion in a band. The accordion playing and the mutilation both remind us of Pum, and in a more oblique yet brutal way so does the fact that she’s being stalked by an obsessive fan, Bogdanov. In case we don’t already know how this echoes or parallels Rebellion, Hamilton punctuates the novel with plot reminders, as well as descriptions of Roth’s real-life marriage to Frieda, who had a slow mental breakdown, and was eventually murdered by the Nazis.

This multiplicity of narratives has a congestive effect on the pages of The Pages, but the fable-like style means that we generally accept the somewhat flattened nature of his characters. Hamilton’s principal interest here is the interconnectedness of time, rather than the details of individual personalities, and he animates this by stoking our curiosity about the diagram in Lena’s loquacious copy of Rebellion. Will it reveal something of material value? Or will it teach a lesson about the relationship between past and present?

Lena leaves Berlin to quiz her uncle Henning in Magdeburg, and he gives her a lot of family and book background. By this time, she’s begun an affair with Armin, despite the fact that her husband Mike keeps badgering her with news from home. Specifically, with news about his mother’s troubles with her neighbours. Clearly these local difficulties align with larger questions the book raises about territorial disagreement and displacement, but even with the conventions of fable, it feels excessive to have so many plot lines converging on the same point.

Still, the climax of the novel’s adventure story comes as a surprise, and all the more so when it transpires that several characters have followed Lena and Armin to the remote farmhouse indicated by the diagram. Melodrama notwithstanding, this denouement plays into the novel’s main central concern: the recapitulations of history, and the resemblances between one bad nationalistic time and another. But entangled with this theme is another preoccupation. Armin’s job as a surveyor of empty spaces; his sister’s missing leg; the political suppressions that shaped Roth’s existence; the isolation of his real-life spouse; the lacunae in history and the gaps in human understanding of history: all these things mean that The Pages – a novel that risks cluttering itself with too many presences – is primarily interested in relaying the griefs of absence.

The Pages is published by 4th Estate (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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