Review: The Passenger, by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz
Another book in contention for top of 2021 list (we're up to 29 now...) - although if I'm being honest, this one might slide off the list when it comes time to make the final list, because it might just be a shade less good than the ones I finally decide on. But we shall see.
This is the story of Otto Silbermann, a well-to-do merchant in Berlin on November 10, 1939 who also happens to be Jewish. Now, for my keen-eyed history buff readers, you will have picked up on what exactly the central conflict of the novel is (November 10 is the night after Kristallnacht). Otto escapes being arrested at his apartment, and then spends 2-3 days wandering around Germany on different trains trying to call in the favours he is owed in order to illegally cross the border into Belgium. The blurb on the back describes Otto's odyssey as Kafkaesque, and there definitely is an element of surrealism and farce in the narrative - and Otto's narration is occasionally so bitingly funny that it felt a bit like a sucker punch.
That's the main strength of this novel, is how deftly Boschwitz wields his dark humour and emphasises the farcical nature of Otto's peregrinations. There's a lot of breadth in the characters that Otto meets while he's trying to avoid arrest - the only characters who are all bad are the ones who never speak or take up much space in the narrative; most of the 'ordinary' Germans that Otto meets while he's trying to avoid being caught are people who are, for the most part, well-meaning, but they are oblivious, clueless, a bit naïve and mostly scared, confused and overwhelmed. The humanity that Boschwitz imbues all of his cast of characters with, as well as the unlikeable traits he gives Otto, all serve to make Otto's narrative even more harrowing.
I recommend reading the story behind how this manuscript came to be re-published in a few years ago as well, as it's fascinating backstory to have going into the novel and makes the prescience that Boschwitz shows in Otto's internal monologue truly uncanny. It is a grim, precise, timeless observation of a man who is watching the only home he's ever known and the only society he's ever been a part of disintegrate and turn hostile in front of his very eyes; it's also an evisceration of people who look the other way when they knew better.
This is a dark, dark book that is difficult to read even when it was making me laugh; but also it's very good and so I think you should read it.