LIKE SNOW, this novel accumulates delicately, lulling the mind with an inaudible dream. At the same time, it keeps the reader busy since it permits, indeed requires, at least three kinds of attention, one of which is to keep straight what happens to Ulrich Hargenau, a novelist formerly implicated in a terrorist plot, after he returns to Germany from Paris, where he's been cooling his heels and his prose. The second kind is to watch how the novel drifts and swells into becoming a metaphor for postwar Germany, and in so doing to figure out (if you can) how accurate the metaphor is. The third, implied perhaps in the book's splintery format (words, lines, short paragraphs isolated by deliberate spacing that suggests continual omissions), is to guess at what isn't there, as if you were flying low over a bombedout landscape. To do all three at once is best, however, because then you're turning into the story line while getting its metaphor in full.
The title itself seems a warning. Neither question no assertion, it re-forms itself in the mind's ear as "How German It Is," which seems a clever way of getting you (again, as if in a dream) to presuppose a conclusion the book never reaches. And can't, because what the book's about is the arbitrariness of labels contrasted with the teeming individualities lumped together in something called, for convenience's sake, a nation.
Take Ulrich Hargenau, or his conniving brother Helmuth, a famous architect. They're both German, in a very special way, in that their father was executed by firing squad "early one August morning in 1944" for being one of the Stauffenberg group. Not that's a vintage German fate, having a father to whom that's supposed to have happened; I say "supposed" because I don't believe it -- after the instant reprisals of July 20, the day of the attempt on Hitler, no one was executed, but all were interrogated, and when executions resumed, early in August, the method was hanging. Between the attempt and early August, the only conspirators shot were those who shot themselves.
So, in one sense, Ulrich's father's fate is mythical, and I think Abish makes it deliberately so, even though the facts are easily found in history books. In other words, the entire tale may not be "true," at least not on the level of the first kind of attention I mentioned above. So the book shifts, almost at once, into metaphor and splinter, tempting you to keep saying, "How German it all is," as if echoing Helmuth's funeral oration on Brumhold, the famous philosopher after whom the local town was named. Invoking "the German passion for exacitude and abstractions," Helmuth conjures up an image of Brumhold (a thinly disguised Heidegger), "sitting at his worn oak desk in his cabin in the Black Forest . . . the German forest in which dwells our spirit, our ideals, our cultural past, our poetry, our truth." And so on. Per se, allthis may not be true, but successive generations of Germans, all saying it, have made it true; and so, in that sense, both Ulrich and Helmuth, harping on what's German as distinct from what's French or international, are doing the same. Nothing is more German than the discussion of whether a thing (Brumhold's and Heidegger's Ding ) is German or not.
Hence, I think, the ambivalence of the book's title. All the dreams about truth beome truth, and the clincher comes at the very end when Ulrich, speaking under hypnosis(!), reveals the books's main fact: he isn't his father's son at all. "I had been born too long after my father's imprisonment and execution for me to be his son. I pretended that it wasn't true . . . I am a bastard." The whole novel turns inside out at that point, and you realize it's not really about a martyred father's son who turned to terrorism to be somehow heroic like his father, but about a bastard son who failed himself (turning state's evidence to save his skin) because his ostensible father "was not cut out to be a conspirator" either. The effect of this reversal is to make two novels out of one, and to send you back along the course of all its fine cumulative shadings to reinterpret everything Ulrich has said and done and everyone he has known, from his jettisoned French mistress to his new American girl friend, from his estranged wife to his mother, whom he never sees.
Nothing stays put or intact, and the clincher to the clincher comes when Ulrich, emerging from hypnosis without knowing what he's said, at the doctor's command raises his right hand "in a stiff salute." Both the doctor and Abish's narrator have the advantage of him, retrospectively anyway, in this extraordinary kaleidoscope in which labels, slogns, titles of books and people, reputations and reflexes, flutter about incessantly and mutate in the twinkling of an eye. "Is it possible," the book concludes, "for anyone in Germany, nowadays, to raise his right hand, for whatever the reason, and not be flooded by the memory of a dream to end all dreams?" In a word, this fastidious, honed, optical illusion of a book is yet another example of its own theme: individual and national trauma. The net effect is moving, not least because the protagonist, unable to face the truth of his existence, invents for himself a fake identity that's less individual than national. And all that comes his way -- the matchstick replica, made by an old Hargenau family retainer, of the nearby death-camp; the mass grave uncovered in the main street of Brumholdstein; almost being knocked down twice in the street by passing vehicles, and being shot in the arm -- sharpens the poignancy and makes his fake identity an expendable piece of trash, a figment, a cross.
Abish writes here with some of the meticulous, almost philatelic obsessiveness of what used to be called the French New Novel, but in his hands the technique is never boring or flat, mainly because every shred of the evidence he records has a vast emotional hinterland. Everything is ponderable here because it's mysterious, and the mysteriousness comes in part from the "fact" with which an interviewer confronts Ulrich: "One reads your books always feeling as if some vital piece of information is being withheld." The missing piece is Freudian, it seems; but the best measure of Abish's skill is the way in which, while giving the reader that same feeling of being denied something, he supplies all you need. Read him once for story, then again for the personification of Germany, and then a third time to fill up the lacunae. The uncanny thing is that, once you know the truth that Ulrich knows about himself, the novel -- far from being defused -- takes off again, like an erupting guidebook. Note "the magnificent landscapes, die Landschaft" and "the blue sky, der Blaue Himmel," ladies and gentlemen. These things keep the tourist sane and drive the German mad. Abish's masterly novel does a bit of both, and much, much more; it's his finest book to date.