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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Wolfgang Herrndorf

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To purchase Sand

Title: Sand
Author: Wolfgang Herrndorf
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 457 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Sand - US
Sand - UK
Sand - Canada
Sable - France
Sand - Deutschland
  • German title; Sand
  • Translated by Tim Mohr
  • With an Afterword by Michael Maar (translated by Isabel Fargo Cole)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : wonderfully off-kilter, if ultimately too narrowly tortured

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 11/11/2011 Friedmar Apel
Irish Times A+ 8/4/2017 Eileen Battersby
NZZ . 7/1/2012 Rainer Moritz
Publishers Weekly . 16/4/2018 .
The Spectator . 15/7/2017 Jeff Noon
TLS . 17/5/2017 George Berridge
Die Zeit . 17/11/2011 A.H.Hünniger

  Review Consensus:

  Almost all impressed - though note it is very tricksy

  From the Reviews:
  • "Der Leser muss es in Herrndorfs grandiosem Spiel der Mehrdeutigkeiten und Irrtümer selbst herausfinden. Verraten wird ihm hingegen, wer der identitätsvergessene Mann ist beziehungsweise war. Metaphorisch begabte Leser können sich in ihm aber auch selbst erkennen. Im Nachhinein erscheint jedenfalls alles so logisch wie bei Hitchcock, Stendhal oder Borges." - Friedmar Apel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "German original Wolfgang Herrndorf’s anarchic, brilliant and very funny thriller is like no other book, although it may help to think Catch-22 or even better, William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic. (...) Sand is a clever, outrageous demonstration of hold on to your hats -- and stomachs -- storytelling which is also strongly cinematic" - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "Ja, das lohnt sich, sofern man bereit ist, sich auf die vom Autor genüsslich ausgebreiteten Irrwege zu begeben, für Slapstickeffekte empfänglich ist und gern den Fundus der Literatur- und Filmgeschichte besichtigt. (...) Kurzum, Wolfgang Herrndorf hat einen ungemein unterhaltsamen, verspielten Roman geschrieben, der kein Sandkorn auf dem anderen lässt, und im Sieb der Leser sollten für jeden ein paar Nuggets übrig bleiben." - Rainer Moritz, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The characters’ stories occasionally intertwine until they come together in an unsatisfying ending that only the most patient reader will persist in reaching. A big hit in Germany, this will have limited appeal to an American audience." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Every element of his story is woven together masterfully, with grain upon grain of detail added to a landscape that never stops shifting underfoot. It’s part Pynchon, part Beckett, a crime story told by Lewis Carroll in a particularly nihilistic mood." - Jeff Noon, The Spectator

  • "The nihilism that runs through Sand -- supported by Herrndorf’s bleak humour and irony, which shines through in Tim Mohr’s translation -- is a useful ploy. The protagonist’s flattened affect amid the chaos and carnage he finds himself a part of, the ostensible tangentiality of characters (among them a crazed spy, a reluctant detective and a half-blind boot­legger) and the frustrated denouement might lead to the conclusion that this is an exercise in absurdism. Sand, however, is a careful subversion of the crime thriller genre: no grand exposition is given, only an elegant conclusion left for careful readers." - George Berridge, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Gerade die Tatsache, dass sich der Leser lange ratlos durch dieses rätselhafte Geschehen bewegt, bringt das eigentliche Lesevergnügen. Denn der Roman wird so zur Spielwiese. Eine Spielwiese, in der es sich lohnt, nach Spuren und Andeutungen zu suchen: Man blättert zurück, nimmt Details unter die Lupe, weil man doch bei der Aufklärung des Verbrechens mit von der Partie sein will. Und da stößt man auf das Motiv des Elixiers. (...) Sand ist ein literarisches Experiment an der Grenze zwischen Existenzialismus und Spionagethriller, mutig in der Form, barock in der Sprache. Nichts Anschmiegsames. Kein Scherz. Eine Hoffnung." - Andrea Hanna Hünniger, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Sand is set in an unnamed North African country in the summer of 1972, and it begins with an investigation into the brutal murder of four members of an agrarian commune in the oasis town of Tindirma. The case seems entirely straightforward, the responsible party one Amadou Amadou who is quickly caught and judged. He denies being involved, but the evidence is pretty overwhelming; with the victims Westerners, everyone is interested in closing the case quickly. Amadou Amadou isn't exactly brought to justice -- inconveniently, he soon escapes custody -- but the case seems cut and dried. As throughout the novel, however: nothing is quite so simple, with ripple effects reverberating through much of the rest of the story..
       This case, and the police activities -- featuring colleagues Polidorio and Canisades -- dominate the first part of the novel, the first of its five books. Police work is frustrating in this country -- especially for recent arrival Polidorio, a Frenchman with Arabic roots who, only two months into the job, already deeply regrets having ventured across the Mediterranean and taking the position.
       Another significant character also arrives in coastal Targat in the course of the first section of the novel, Helen Gliese, who happens to be friends with one of the surviving communards but explains that she is in the country on (rather unlikely-sounding) business. The man who seems to be the central character in Sand, however, only surfaces (as such) in the second book, well into the novel.
       He enters the story here almost entirely as a void and blank: he is literally a mystery man, a comprehensive amnesia leaving him functioning quite normally but unable to recall even the basics, such as his name. He comes to in an attic, in the middle of the desert. He received a blow on the head, and his first instincts are to flee -- which proves easier said than done. For each step forward there seems to be another back as his tries to make his way towards civilization again -- including the loss of possible clues to his identity.
       Eventually, Helen chances on the pathetic, beat-up figure, and she picks him up and helps him out, despite his suspicious unwillingness to go to the authorities or a hospital. She puts him up in her hotel bungalow, and tries to help him figure out who he is -- with little luck. He continues to maintain he has no recollection of his past or identity -- while people continue to doubt him. Eventually, Helen starts calling him 'Carl', to give him some name -- "I have to call you something" --, the name chosen from the maker's label sewn in his jacket.
       Carl doesn't know who he is, but others seem to have some idea, or at least expectations. He seems to have been mixed up in something -- illegal, he surmises (and worries), though he has no sense of the extent of his involvement -- and can't quite escape it: he is, for example, given a seventy-two hour deadline to fix things by one interested party who briefly kidnap and threaten him -- not that Carl has the foggiest idea what he can do to fix anything or extricate himself from this situation.
       Carl stumbles around a lot, with and without Helen, trying to figure out who he is and what he was involved in. Apparently a mine was involved -- but they don't even know what kind of mine, whether a hole-in-the-ground mineral excavations site, or the ink-mine for a pen .....
       So Sand is kind of a thriller, with murder, international intrigue (a case filled with (worthless) East German currency seems to play a role; the concurrent Munich Olympics tragedy playing out in the (distant) background), a variety of shadowy groups and figures, as well as the locals who seem to live in a completely different world. Carl's amnesia compounds the sense of mystery about everything -- occasionally admittedly irritatingly, when others dangle their knowledge in front of him (and the reader) but don't spell it out, but on the whole quite effectively.
       Helen remains helpful and supportive -- suspiciously so, perhaps ..... Among the desperate attempts to figure out what's wrong with Carl is a visit to an extremely unlikely local psychiatrist -- offering introductory rates ..... Dr Cockroft is semi-professional, and asks what seem to be plausible diagnostic questions, but is ultimately unconvincing as a psychiatrist. But then practically everything and everyone Carl deals with has an air of irreality to it.
       Carl somehow found himself in the middle of something significant -- but he has no sense of what it is, with those interested in the knowledge they're certain he has getting no closer to getting at it. Eventually, the game gets more basic again, the attempts to get at whatever Carl might know more direct. Carl suffered a lot early on in the story, and he doesn't fare well as it draws itself to its conclusion -- Herrnorf indulging rather too much in drawn-out brutality, to too little end. But the novel's resolutions are satisfying, despite not quite following traditional thriller- or novel-expectations: beyond resolving the thriller-plot, a handful of not so happy endings are surprisingly satisfying in (or despite) their black-tinged humor and banality.
       Sand makes no secret of being a novel about someone who is not who he seems. That's sort of the point -- with the twist that Carl himself -- apparently -- has no idea of who he is: while others (including perhaps at times the reader) have doubts about whether or not he is dissembling, Carl's identitylessness remains his defining characteristic, his search for answers (and that answer in particular) the one thing that drives him. But others' identities are also indistinct, and it can't come as much surprise that they aren't quite who they claim to be either.
       The fun of the novel -- and for a lot of the novel it is a lot of fun -- is in the telling, the short chapters, each with a well-chosen epigraph, shifting among the large cast of characters and the overlapping storylines. Herrndorf weaves the tale around the black hole of Carl's amnesia and what it might hold, but he's also really good in the incidental and observational -- indeed, that's the real strength of the novel (also in that much of the apparently incidental does fit into the larger picture, if not immediately obviously). Ultimately, Herrndorf does fall back and then rely too much on Carl's agonies, in a turn to more traditional thriller-fare -- but he redeems it somewhat with a perfectly realized series of conclusions (which are the antithesis of neat thriller endings, even as they also, after a fashion, tie up the remaining loose ends).
       Sand is an artfully constructed puzzle that leans a bit too much (or too long) on its central amnesiac conceit and is at its best -- and a really very good best it is -- when it isn't wallowing in just that. Some of the chapters are first-rate pieces all their own; the fact that so many also fit together in this odd, larger puzzle is all the more impressive. If not quite sustained over the whole novel, a lot of Sand is nevertheless wonderful entertainment, and it is a very impressive work.

       (Note: Michael Maar's Afterword dissects the story and connects the dots, if readers missed them, well -- though this key-to-the-novel arguably unlocks and reveals too much (or rather takes it out of the hands of the reader (i.e. spoils some of the fun, in what the reader might have taken from the book), spelling so much out). In any case: spoiler-heavy, it certainly should be left as after-word, rather than consulted earlier on.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 July 2018

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Sand: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       German author Wolfgang Herrndorf lived 1965 to 2013.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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