By Marcel Beyer
Translated from the German by Breon Mitchell
Harcourt. 273 pp. $24
What's usually lost in translation is saved in the English version of Marcel Beyer's novel about the secrets of families and nations. In the opening pages of Spies, the unnamed narrator recalls mysterious white spores that floated down on their hill when he was a child. "No one knows if the spores appear only at sundown or if they have been in the air all day but only become visible in the evening light," he says. "They creep toward us along the fallow field like ground fog, across the farm machinery and the pasture fence, and at times the cloudy opaque tendrils suddenly become so thick that we can hardly tell the other children apart."
In Breon Mitchell's haunting translation, the slant rhyme between "spies" and "spores" is even better than the German original Spione and Sporen, and throughout this story of remembered and misremembered events, Beyer, a poet, plays off that similarity. His characters are deeply infected by tiny specks of anxiety that spread like fungus in the dark, airless realm of self-consciousness. Through war and peace, all of them vacillate between the unsettling sense that they're being spied on and the secret thrill of peering at others. These spores of guilt grow in the crimes of the past, but Beyer isn't writing about Germany's unique sins so much as the denials and betrayals that germinate in every family.
This highly attenuated psychological thriller develops like a collection of dark clouds, shifting, merging and overlapping, but constantly tempting us to see shapes in a small series of endlessly studied and elaborated moments. The plot, to the extent one can be discerned, revolves around four children in the 1970s: the narrator and three cousins he visits one "disastrous summer." Over several weeks, the children defend themselves from neighborhood taunts by telling stories about their estranged grandfather, who was a pilot in Germany's secret participation in the Spanish Civil War; their late grandmother, an Italian opera star whose face has been cut from the family photo album; and their grandfather's current wife, the ax-wielding Old Lady, who has refused for decades to let anyone visit.
But it's not clear if any of these family legends is accurate. They may be inventions to create a romantic past or hide a shameful one -- the glories of German air power rising from the humiliation of World War I or the horrors of Guernica prefiguring the carnage of World War II. "We belong to the family of the scattered and silenced," the narrator says. The peephole he spent so much time peering through as a child becomes a metaphor for the distorting, single-eyed vision he develops in his search for the truth. Gradually, given the slight material his three cousins provide, his interest in the grandmother seems like a kind of madness. "When the others told me about her," he says, "I felt an involuntary twinge of fear that I would be drawn into something from which there might be no escape. Our grandmother, I sensed, could still be troubling me when the other three had long since forgotten her."
What's most brilliant and unsettling about Spies is the way Beyer universalizes -- not the crimes of Nazism but the pernicious secrecy of families. How many stories are sealed up in the close confines of familiarity, things too awkward to mention as we spy on one another from across the kitchen table or across the decades of history? "Grow up," one of his cousins tells the narrator years later. "You have to forget that story, just as I have. The images must fade, our grandmother's figure must gradually dissolve, until only formless shades of light and dark remain."
The tragedy of this poetic novel is that even when the "most fervent wish is to cease remembering," truly thoughtful people can't, though remembering offers no solace. *
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.