Book Review – ‘Red: A Novel’

Actually, this is a translation of the German title ‘Rot: Roman’. Fortunately, this is not just a book about the colour red (although as you might expect, red things do play a role at certain points in the story). Instead, it is an intelligent and complex narrative.

The novel opens with the death of the narrator, who is also its main protagonist, and works backwards through time to cover a few keys moments from the last years of his life. The story unfolds through a sometimes haphazzard first-person narration, which – it quickly becomes clear – also functions as the narrator’s funeral oration for himself.

[Another word for this is ‘eugoogly’. Or did you think I would be too stupid to know what a eugoogly was?]

It transpires that, while alive, the narrator earned his living as a funeral speaker for atheists and agnostics who would have objected to a religious funeral. (The implication appears to be that the narrator began to work in this capacity while living in the former East Germany. This is a novel about the recent pasts of individuals and political systems no longer extant.)

The approach favoured by the narrator when creating funeral orations was to find out what made each person’s life unique and interesting. He tries to uncover the story of each person as a rounded whole – not simply the idealised version he is presented with in his interviews with their friends and family. This approach also characterises the style of the novel itself (the narrator focuses on what made himself unique) and of the entire oeuvre of the author, Uwe Timm.

The other very interesting character in this novel is the love-interest, who describes her career in the memorable line ‘I sell light’. She is, in fact, a lighting designer and artist, who is commissioned to light the flats of the well-to-do as well as plays and operas, and who also creates her own light installations. All of these are evocatively described by the narrator.

As if this were not interesting enough, we learn that the narrator was carrying some dynamite in his briefcase when he died; dynamite that he found while researching the life of an elderly Communist agitator…

And did I mention that the book is full of humour?