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F: A novel

Rebecca Foster

F: A novel

Daniel Kehlmann

Quercus, 258pp

WHAT does 'F' stand for? Faith, finances, fraud, forgery, family and Fate all play a role in F, Daniel Kehlmann's fourth novel available in English translation, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This is all the more remarkable given that F originally appeared in German in 2013 and not all the above themes are cognates. F is also for the Friedlands: unreliable patriarch Arthur, who abandons his family to pursue his writing, and his three sons - Martin, a portly Catholic priest who doesn't believe in God, and his twin half-brothers, Eric and Ivan, the former a mentally ill businessman who is set for a fall as financial crisis approaches in August 2008; the latter a homosexual painter who gave up on his own career to forge his mentor's masterworks. The novel opens in 1984 with Arthur taking his teenagers to see The Great Lindemann's hypnosis show. Arthur has passed his scepticism on to his progeny, so when Ivan is called on stage he knows it's a fraud but goes along because of stage fright and peer pressure. When Arthur goes up, however, Lindemann extracts what seem like involuntary revelations: Arthur is unhappy and desires success as an author. The hypnotist gets Arthur to promise he will do whatever it takes to pursue his art. Alas, it requires leaving his family penniless. He does not see his sons again until they are grown men, but as the years pass his philosophical novels become a sensation. My Name Is No One, with its protagonist named 'F', convinces readers that they do not in fact exist and, like Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, provokes a spate of suicides. The following sections are first-person narratives from the four Friedlands, all set on the eighth of August, 2008. Martin is a well-meaning Friar Tuck character whose comic reasons for entering the priesthood include 'I liked being in darkened spaces, I liked listening to Monteverdi, and I liked the smell of incense.' He always assumed that the faith to back up his aesthetic attraction would arrive in time, but after years of going through the motions, Martin is no more a believer than when he started; 'I waited, prayed, waited and prayed. But I did not feel Him.' Skirting parishioners' theological questions, he simply replies, 'It's a Mystery.' Setting aside belief, he lives as a fairly happy hedonist, gobbling chocolate bars as he listens to confessions and practicing his beloved Rubik's Cube. 'Thanks be to God, though He doesn't exist, for things like restaurants and air-conditioning. I'm going to order dessert after all.' Meanwhile Eric, an investment banker on the brink of bankruptcy, narrates a manic day of popping prescription pills, carrying on an affair with his ex-therapist and wondering whether suicide is preferable to doing jail time for his dodgy financial dealings. Like Martin, he prizes the world's comforts; 'A good make of car, clean, tank full, with a chauffeur at the wheel, all give more peace than the finest of religions.' Ivan drifts into memories confirming his conviction that he is destined for mediocrity. 'I don't know if I'm a forger,' he hedges; 'it depends, like everything in life, on how you define it.' Such Clintonian hair-splitting could apply to any of the Friedlands, each a fraud in his own way. Arthur's contribution to this piecemeal account is a backwards family genealogy, going deeper into a possibly fictive past that encompasses Jews, an actor, doctors, Caribbean slaves, a priest during the Plague, generations of farmers, and - most tellingly - a mesmerist and a con man. These paragraph-long potted histories blend history and legend through their plain language. Birth, career and death are all that seem to matter in this telling, yet the event that brings all the book's narratives together - a random stabbing on the street; a murder without a body for proof - seems to contradict that unimaginative chronology. Has life ended if there is no physical evidence? As Martin would say, 'It's a Mystery.' While the characters' faith in themselves, in each other, and even in God ebbs and flows, Lindemann reappears as a disgraced emblem of Fate, reduced to making a living as a carnival soothsayer but so nearly blind that he can barely read the cards to predict the future. 'Seek it out yourself. Seek out the one you want' instead, Arthur advises his granddaughter. Setting up a framework in which 'God's will' and 'destiny' are meaningless concepts, the novel still concedes that belief in God can spark human love and compassion. As Martin's friend Finckenstein argues, 'we act out His existence through the exercise of human love. … How can one love human beings if one doesn't see them as God's creation?' With its distinctive characters representing abstractions - God, Mammon and Art - the only thing missing is the love to bind them together. Reading this brilliant, funny spoof on the traditional family saga is like puzzling out a Rubik's Cube: It is a multi-faceted narrative with many meanings that only become clear the deeper you go. As the novel repeats the events of 8 August 2008 from different perspectives, new faces of the cube come to light. The satirical tone and philosophical content are most like Joshua Ferris's Booker-shortlisted To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, but the sophisticated treatment of religion, morality and art will also appeal to fans of Michael Arditti, Herman Koch, Julian Barnes and Siri Hustvedt. What does F stand for? As Ivan concludes, 'we're put here on earth to see' and appreciate beauty. 'Life being a short day between two endlessly long nights, one should enjoy the bright moments even more and dance for as long as the sun still shone.'