There’s something very reminiscent of an archaeological dig about Austerlitz – the quest to piece back together a missing life by sifting through layers of the past. The finds often appearing random and impenetrable until eventually a cypher is discovered.
Austerlitz reads like the autobiography of an academic, recounted in instalments to the stranger he repeatedly meets in various locations, who has lived a hermetic and fruitless life. You’re never quite sure if you’re reading biography or fiction, a puzzle enhanced by the inclusion of many photographs purporting to be a documentation of Austerlitz’s life. We soon learn that he has always shied away from the knowledge of who he really is, that he was sent on a Kindertransport by his mother when the Nazis invaded Prague where he lived as a child. Very late in life he sets about trying to discover what happened to his mother and father.
It’s no coincidence that Austerlitz shares his name with a train station as train stations are a constant conduit for transition and connection – and ever present is the towering menace they can evoke in the light of the holocaust. The best parts of this novel are always when he explores the relationship of buildings to history, when he confronts the ghosts that haunt buildings. There’s a brilliant indictment of the horrible new Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris which we discover was formerly the site of the warehouses where the Nazis stored looted treasure from the Parisian Jews. Also moving is when he visits the concentration camp at Theresienstadt where his mother was interned and even more so when he acquires a copy of the Nazi propaganda film of the ghetto and slows it down in the hope of catching a glimpse of his mother’s face among all the Jewish prisoners forced to act out a grotesque charade of wellbeing. In the slowed down version the upbeat music of the soundtrack becomes an insufferable mournful dirge.
Translated from German, the voice is deadpan, weathered, almost monotonous and no doubt might alienate some readers. I can’t say it was a prose style that enamoured me much.