The Pages: A novel
“Past and present, fact and fiction loop and intersect, echoes of history filter into modern life . . .”
A work of fiction dramatically changes the course of people’s lives and ultimately sets in place a series of events that unfolds over 100 years.
Rebellion by Joseph Roth was published in Germany in 1924 and tells the story of Andreas Pum, who was wounded in the First Word War and who makes a living as a barrel organ player.
The book itself is the narrator of Hugo Hamilton’s novel The Pages, not just of the story it tells but of its own journey from 1930s Nazi Germany to modern day America and back to Germany.
In Rebellion, a confrontation with a businessman and another man on a tram ends in disaster for Pum. The organ grinder “who fought bravely and lost his leg on their behalf, raises his crutch in anger” and a policeman is called.
Pum, who according to one of his accusers “is probably a Jew into the bargain” is arrested and . . . “He becomes undocumented.”
Nine years later, Rebellion is one of the novels blacklisted by the Nazis, and copies are plundered from libraries, bookshops, and people’s homes to be thrown onto bonfires.
However, the copy that narrates The Pages is smuggled past a blazing pyre to the countryside and secreted inside the cover of another book. It survives the war and remains hidden during the years of communist rule in East Germany before being taken to the US.
The novel’s original Jewish owner, a university professor, and the family whose hands it falls into become the central characters in The Pages.
Lena is the granddaughter of the man who smuggled the book from Berlin, and it was her father who brought it to Philadelphia and who left it to her.
At the back of the book is a map, and Lena determines to decode it and solve a puzzle that baffled previous generations of her family.
Hamilton weaves together the lives of Rebellion’s author Roth and his wife Friedl, the characters who inhabit his fiction and those people who come into contact with the edition that eventually falls into Lena’s hands.
Some of the most poignant passages are about Friedl and her slow descent into madness. She and her husband live a peripatetic life, with Roth often absent, leaving her in hotel rooms.
Reading one of his manuscripts she comes across the line: “His bride disappeared from his thoughts, like a country left behind.” And Friedl wonders if his fiction reflects his attitude toward her.
She is committed to a mental asylum, and as the Nazis come to power Roth wanders through Europe, writing but eventually dying an alcoholic in Paris in 1939. Friedl dies the following year in a concentration camp.
In the 21st century Lena encounters the same forces that swept through Europe in the 1930s and ultimately led to war and the Holocaust: the rise of the far right, intolerance of immigrants, and racist hatred.
Lena is mugged in Berlin, and the robber makes off with her copy of Rebellion, tossing
it aside in a park as he makes off with her cell phone and passport.
The book is found by Armin, a Chechen refugee orphaned by the war there and left with shrapnel lodged in his body. His sister Madina lost a leg.
Armin reads the novel and then tracks down Lena to return the novel to her. His life becomes entangled with Lena’s and her quest to decipher the map.
Past and present, fact and fiction loop and intersect, and echoes of history filter into modern life, narrated by Lena’s copy of Rebellion.
Hamilton writes: “A book is like any human mind—it has a story to tell that is not always revealed by the first reading. Underneath the printed text there is a complex pattern of subconscious associations. Secrets, suspicions, hints, reflections.”
He weaves this multi-layered story that plays out over decades in real life and in the pages of books with the deft skill of a novelist who has been writing for more than 30 years.
The narrative device of a book telling its story gives Hamilton a framework to traverse back and forward across the decades and the lives of his various characters.
He explores the idea that the societal dynamics that led to mass slaughter around 80 years ago are being rekindled and at any time could swell up into an unstoppable tidal wave that will sweep across Europe again.
The Pages is a story of those who have been marginalized but who through fiction, either as writers or readers, shift the dynamics of their own lives and those who come into their orbit.