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B : overly playful and not quite sharp enough, but enjoyably far-ranging medley
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The complete review's Review:
The Republic is narrated by Friso de Vos, a Dutch not-quite-academic who is editor in chief of The Sleepwalker, a journal of Hitler Studies at Cornell, in upstate New York.
The journal's impressive (and somewhat unlikely) circulation of almost ten thousand is explained by the man behind it -- not Friso, but Josip Brik, one of its founders and the man whose imprint is all over it.
Brik -- actually Brík, with the acute accent ("but somewhere in the mid-nineties he'd dropped that to make it easier for publishers, journalists, and Americans in general") -- has built his career on Hitler, and he plucked and groomed Friso for his role as: "a little wagon, hitched to the Josip Brik locomotive".
— Tell me honestly, Friso, are you my Dauphin or my Robespierre ?The question suggests even Brik sees Friso as the obvious next in line -- the question being, whether the succession will be the natural one, the son (dauphin) assuming the throne in proper time, or a radical overthrowal. (Spicing things up further: Brik's: "most popular and hated work was a comparative study of Robespierre and Hitler entitled The Red Machine, or Why Things Cost Money (2005)".) In fact, neither really seems to doubt that Friso will eventually assume Brik's mantle -- or at least Friso seems convinced that it's obvious to them, and everyone: as Brik's gofer his life has shadowed Brik and his work for so many years now, so he thinks the mantle is his to then claim. Of course, one wonders why he thinks he could follow in this giant's footsteps, when he himself admits: "I wasn't an academic; my talent lay in reshaping paragraphs, improving punctuation" and that:
I'm happiest editing, arranging stuff, emailing. Writing a thousand-word preface for each issue of The Sleepwalker always takes me two weeks.But then what Friso envisions isn't so much replacing Brik, but rather carrying on the torch(-of-Brik): "I would map his legacy. Me. My task". He would keep Brik and Brik's thought alive ..... (One of the weaknesses of the book is in not giving enough sense of why Brik is such an admired thinker, and exactly what kind of legacy or thought Friso would sustain; Brik sounds like an academic who puts on a good show but whose fame is largely personality- rather than substance-based, and Vries doesn't make enough of it or him to suggest why his work should (or could) outlive him.)
Of course, Brik is still barreling ahead full-steam and probably not thinking too far ahead, about any time after him -- but the novel quickly brings the issue to a head, pretty much beginning with the unexpected, the unfortunate and premature demise of Brik, as he tumbles from a hotel window. Friso feels guilty: as Brik's gofer, he normally would have accompanied him on the trip and made all the arrangements; he's certain that if he had, Brik wouldn't have died. But, for once, he wasn't there -- sent off on assignment instead by Brik, in search of Hitlers -- people literally named 'Hitler' -- in Chile -- and, left to his own devices, larger than life Brik abruptly and accidentally cut that life short
The Chile trip went poorly, with Friso knocked out of commission and then long-hospitalized with a nasty infection, "a form of septicemia known as the Nubulae-O'Higgens variant". He was in no condition to travel, so he also missed the memorial service -- where it's another figure that shines: "According to The New York Times, the unexpected highlight of Brik's memorial service had been a speech by a Dutch researcher called Philip de Vries". Friso tries to learn more about this mystery man he's never heard of, but there's not much out there: "He didn't have a Facebook page (who doesn't have a Facebook page ?), and a Google search only threw up two hits". [This is another example of the author being rather too casual: sure, the book originally came out in Holland a couple of years back, but even then a Google search for the not uncommon name Philp de Vries would have spit out far more than two results (10,200,000 is the number (supposedly) on offer when I do it now, though admittedly Google won't actually lead you to anywhere near that many); possibly there might have been only two relevant hits -- but surely with most of the results it's too hard to determine whether it is the 'right' Philip de Vries ..... In any case, it's seems implausible that there would be so few online references to anyone who has in any way been publicly active and who has published; the news reports of de Vries' appearance at the Brik memorial alone would generate multiple returns.]
Part of the joke is that this Philip de Vries is such a phantom-like figure: apparently a student of Brik's, yet Friso has never heard of him, and try as he might he gets no sense and little further information about him or his accomplishments. Friso immediately feels insecure: how could there be this part of Brik's life -- his professional life, no less -- which he was completely out of the loop of ? Worse yet, this Philip guy is being treated as the dauphin, the man who can carry on the Brik-legacy -- usurping the role Friso had always seen for himself.
Fortunately, a chance for a show-down presents itself, a conference in Vienna to which Philp has been invited, and where the organizers suggest the two could be pitted against one another (though they're worried about them perhaps being: "unequal luminaries" ...). Friso accepts an invitation to the conference -- and finds his trip well-subsidized by a Brik-supporter, the wife of a Cornell dean, allowing him to indulge in some excesses. And once in Vienna, Friso begins to play at being Philip, claiming to be de Vries and making up stories about him.
It's an amusing idea, but oddly played out. Friso convinces himself that, because of his (supposedly) deeper knowledge of Brik, he's really got a handle on this:
This was a fantastic role, I now realized. I knew the bare bones of the anecdotes told by De Vries. But I possessed the firsthand knowledge to breathe flesh onto them -- I was a better Philip de Vries than he himself could ever be.Philip, meanwhile, apparently remains blissfully unaware of what Friso is doing -- indeed, he tries repeatedly to get in touch with Friso about another matter, but Friso is evasive and ignores these approaches (coming across as even more petty and silly than he has previously ...). Friso seems to want undermine Philip's reputation with his performances and claims -- and probably does a pretty decent job of it -- but it's a pretty halfhearted show he puts on. Mostly basically hiding out while in Vienna, he also does little to enhance his own position as keeper of the Brik flame, which one might think would be more concerned with; apparently he thinks taking down Philip, at least a notch or two, would suffice. Eventually, the play-acting gets Friso in some more uncomfortable and complicated situations, but even these resolve themselves fairly harmlessly; so also the event where he and Philip finally meet -- which doesn't exactly go well, but isn't exactly a confrontation. And, yes, Friso also continues his impersonation to take what he believes should be his -- Brik himself, in a sense -- in an amusing final turn of this not-quite-contest Friso v. Philip.
The whole heir-plot, this struggle to assume the role of chosen son -- and 'unmask' Philip as obviously a mere pretender to the throne (or rather to present/play him as such) in order to do so, is more fizzle than convincing. The real Philip remains too indistinct in the background, and he hardly seems a plausible follower-in-the-footsteps in the first place (not that Friso really does, either ...) -- and he doesn't even seem to be that heavily invested in filling this role, making this come across like a one-sided pseudo-contest which the supposed opponent isn't even aware he's involved in.
More interesting is all the surrounding padding -- notably the Hitler studies theme, as author de Vries takes a deep dive into this bizarre world of the Hitler-obsessed, from the academics with their specializations to a Vienna-shop with a hidden room where Nazi memorabilia is for sale. The South American detour, on the trail of people called Hitler, is a bit of a dud, and de Vries doesn't have his characters wonder too much about the implications of much that is presented here, but it is an intriguing glimpse of the continued wide-spread fascination with both the man and the ideology. (Part of the problem in the handling of this, however, is that Friso doesn't seem to care or even know much about the field. He admits: "The specifics of totalitarian excesses have never greatly interested me", but his lack of interest seems to extend considerably further; his devotion is almost entirely to Brik, and Brik's personality (rather than his thought); he is definitely no scholar.)
Adding yet another layer -- and perhaps its most successful one -- The Republic is also a love story. Early on Friso breaks up with his longtime girlfriend Pippa -- one of the first scenes in the novel has them break the news to Brik, as they seem to be more worried about how he will take it than how it will affect them -- but she remains a presence who continues to figure in Friso's life, and the novel's epilogue is all them -- a flash of Brik a nice final touch, as Friso finally seems to have been able to finally move on. This relationship too is too summarily handled -- Pippa is an odd duck, but also never quite fleshed out enough beyond that -- but it floats nicely in the background for most of the novel, and works well in its conclusion.
The Republic is also a tricksy novel -- with de Vries eschewing subtlety as often as not. So, for example, the third part of this three-part novel is called, outright: 'The Macguffin' ..... So also Friso eventually leafs through a book of Pippa's he finds, by Alain Finkielkraut, and notes that among the questions posed already in the introduction are: "How do novels help you live ? How does fiction form the context of our lives ?" It's just a summing up of some of what's been hinted at earlier, like when Friso admitted: "I am better at reading than at living". So also de Vries is better at some literary games than others: Friso playing at Philip seems terribly, uncomfortably forced -- but the ideas behind all this are fairly fun and clever.
Execution remains a problem. For one, de Vries is of the Joël Dicker school of Europeans-writing-about-America (it's not a good school, kids; don't go !), close but no cigar: an early scene between an American policeman and Friso (after Brik's house had been broken into) is cringeworthily implausible. Similarly, there are some unfortunate slips -- always confusing in a novel that relies so much on being clever in its incidentals and allusions (you never know if the mistakes are on purpose or not, meant to be meaningful ...). So, for example, there's a glimpse of a famous author -- "small, plump, and celebrated. Écrivain européen" -- who is apparently always in the Nobel Prize mix, but: "Each year the call from Oslo failed to materialize". (The call would be from Stockholm, of course. So the question is, is de Vries trying to show how completely clueless Friso is, or did he not realize this ? [Reviewing this from an ARC, I had hoped this was just a translation slip, but, no, it's in the original, too: "elk jaar werd hij niet gebeld uit Oslo"]) Or there's Pippa's brother not going to Ithaca: "because traveling all the way upstate by train, that was too much for him" -- when Ithaca isn't even on the rail-line (the nearest station is Syracuse, more than fifty miles away -- true, also upstate, but surely bus is the default public transport from New York City to Cornell).
The Republic is, more than anything, puzzling -- intentionally, playfully, and not. De Vries means it to be a clever novel -- but too often seems to be trying too hard. (In ambitions and playfulness -- and visits to Cornell ... -- it resembles Laurent Binet's The Seventh Function of Language, though de Vries got there first (his is the earlier novel).) De Vries' narrator -- already not particularly sympathetic, and then playing at being an (intentionally) obnoxious Philip -- seems out of his league almost the entire time, as de Vries himself seems to have bitten off a whole lot more than he can chew. But in all this material churning through these pages, there is a lot that's quite intriguing too. It doesn't really work, not nearly as well as one would hope, but in its odd twists, and the places it goes -- actual and theoretical -- it's entertaining enough
- M.A.Orthofer, 3 February 2019
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Dutch author Joost de Vries was born in 1983.
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