A father takes his three sons to a hypnotist's show. Called onto the stage, the father's cool self-possession and confidence seem to prevail and he walks away, claiming no effect. They leave the show, he drops his sons off and drives away. We learn later that he has taken his passport and emptied the family bank account. The boys will not see him again until they are adults.
Arthur Friedland's abandonment of his children is the tragedy at the center of this beautifully translated novel by German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann. When we next meet the brothers they are grown, and each is experiencing a crisis of sorts. Martin, the son of an earlier marriage, is overweight, socially awkward and still obsessed with the Rubik's Cube his father gave him as a boy. Although now an ordained priest, he cannot manage to conjure actual belief in even the most basic tenants of faith.
Martin's half-brothers — identical twins Eric and Ivan — had been inseparable (and indistinguishable) as boys but are now drawn apart by the secrets they keep from each other. Eric is a businessman whose financial misdeeds are about to catch up with him; Ivan is an art dealer and forger. In fact, all three brothers are fraudsters of one kind or another and through them, Kehlmann, with dry wit, philosophical wonderings and relentless pessimism, examines the detail of lives lived without integrity.
None of the Friedland men are very good at life. Plaintively, one of them muses: "How did other people know how to behave, where was it written, how did you learn it?" Do their problems all stem from Arthur's disappearance? Did something happen to him on that stage with the hypnotist to make him run away from his life and his family? Or is the state of mind that makes for disconnection and disaffection just our lot as humans in complex modern times?
In chapters that switch point of view to focus on each family member in turn, Kehlmann narrates the lives of the brothers during the summer of 2008, just before the global financial crisis as the deceptions upon which their respective existences are built are threatened with exposure.
This is a book for the reader who doesn't mind working hard. In one exceptional chapter, there is an anecdotal genealogy-in-reverse that tracks the lives of Arthur's ancestors across the globe and through the centuries. It's an object lesson in compression made all the more intriguing by the fact that, taking into account the abandoned babies and disappearing fathers, it's a lineage that cannot possibly be verified. And yet the reader is compelled by the recurring talents and fates that mark the family history.
Kehlmann's prose is sophisticated and often dense, his musings on religion, art and life are intellectually rigorous and his plotting masterful in the linking of the story's separate narratives with overlaps that, when revealed, surprise and shock the reader. Despite the fact that I did not find a single likeable character here — each too deeply flawed and unpleasant to be comfortably deserving of empathy — the challenge made this a hugely rewarding read. After all, as Arthur tells one of his sons: "A life doesn't last long, Ivan. If you're not careful, you squander it in stupidities."
Recent research shows that works in translation account for approximately 3 percent of all books published annually in the U.S. and the UK. Fiction's slice is an even smaller fraction. Thank the publishing gods, then, for the work of translators such as Carol Brown Janeway. Even a writer of Kehlmann's proven skill needs a sensitive and equally talented translator to transform images, jokes and all the complexities of well-drawn characters believably into another language. So well attuned is Janeway to the author's style and sensibility that I did not find a single false note in the entire book.
Although I persuaded myself that I was reading a tale with a distinctly German 'personality,' there was much in Kehlmann's study of a family in crisis that I connected with: the thoughtless disloyalties and acts of selfishness along with mutual co-dependence; the sense of shared fates even as each seeks to forge a separate life.
Kehlmann's rendering of life's mysteries, and Janeway's seemingly effortless brilliance as a translator allow the reader a window to another world, another language, as if looking (and listening) through clear, highly polished glass.
Ellah Allfrey is an editor and critic. She lives in London.
A recent fundraising challenge has gone viral on social media, calling attention to research into Lou Gehrig's disease. Audie Cornish talks with Forbes contributor Dan Diamond about the state of that research and where it goes from here after the fundraising success.
Both the county case as well as the federal investigation into the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown are expected to take time, as are basic answers about the circumstances that led to the black teenager's death Aug. 9.
About two dozen people showed up Wednesday in front of the St. Louis County Courthouse to demonstrate against County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, who is preparing to present evidence in the case to a grand jury.
"This means something to me so I had to be here," says demonstrator Lamont Farr, a home health care worker. "We want Bob McCulloch off this case, that's what we're here for today."
When McCulloch was 12, his father, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty. McCulloch is white. The man who shot his father was black. That history worries many in the community about the prosecutor's objectivity.
"We're fighting for justices across the world, but we don't even have justices at home," Farr says.
McCulloch says his father's death decades ago won't affect his judgement, and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said in a statement Tuesday he isn't asking the prosecutor to step aside.
The U.S. Department of Justice is also investigating whether Brown's civil rights were violated. FBI agents have now reportedly conducted more than 200 interviews. But the answers, and potential charges so many are demanding, won't come quickly.
"You're looking [at] at least months. And it's not impossible in some civil rights investigations that they take years," says former U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins, who worked with Attorney General Eric Holder in the Clinton administration.
"If you're looking for answers, those answers may be a long time in coming, in part because of the rules the guidelines for the Department of Justice," Coggins says. "They're allowed to tell the community 'We're on the job, we're making progress,' things like that, but they're not allowed to share the specific evidence until an indictment comes down."
But Coggins says federal involvement could help quell distrust of the county's handling of the case. He says he has seen it before.
"Sometimes it's very difficult for a DA or a county attorney to convince a community that he or she can be objective where the police are concerned," he says. "The Civil Rights Division prosecutes police officers all the time. That's what they do."
In Ferguson, on Canfield Drive, the site where police officer Darren Wilson shot Brown, Cori Bush, a pastor, shows up daily.
"I'll be out here as long as this is going on," she says.
In the middle of the road, visitors add flowers, baseball caps and stuffed bears to an ever-expanding makeshift memorial for Brown. Bush comes out to pass out food during the day and demonstrates at night.
"It's in shifts," Bush says. "So whatever is the shift is."
She knows the big crowds will eventually dwindle, but Bush is from here. She has no plans to stop participating.
"This can go on until the verdict comes down," she says. "We gotta get the indictment first, and then the verdict, so, it may be a while."
As the legal process plays out, a neighborhood already so torn by unrest and uncertainty has no choice but to wait.
SeaWorld has decided not to appeal a court ruling that prohibits its trainers from performing with killer whales, the Orlando Sentinel reports, citing a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The legal battle has lasted for years, beginning with the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau by an orca named Tilikum in 2010.
As we reported after the incident, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined SeaWorld $75,000 and kept trainers from performing alongside the killer whales. At the time, SeaWorld contested OSHA's conclusion.
This past April, a U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., upheld that citation.
SeaWorld has taken a lot of heat for its use of the whales for entertainment, particularly after the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which featured Tilikum.
Since Brancheau's death in 2010, SeaWorld has taken steps to improve safety for trainers. As NBC 6 in South Florida reports, it "has implemented new safety protocols and equipment for trainers, including an investment of $70 million in lifting floors in the pools that could quickly isolate whales."
SeaWorld announced Aug. 15 that it would be creating bigger "living spaces" for the whales, the first of which will be at SeaWorld San Diego and is scheduled to open in 2018. The facility will be "nearly double" that of the existing one, with 10 million gallons of water — 50 feet deep and more than 350 feet long. It also said it would be investing $10 million for research on killer whales in the wild.
The animal-rights group PETA denounced the move to build "bigger concrete boxes," and its director of animal law said it was a "desperate drop-in-the-bucket move to try to turn back the hands of time."
While trainers won't be part of the show any longer, they will still be training with the whales to get them acclimated to humans, the Orlando Sentinel reports.
"The idea is that if someone were to fall or jump in the water, it wouldn't alarm or excite the whale and cause it to act aggressively," the paper says.