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Henrik Nilsson, Den falske vännen (The False Friend)

Norstedts,  2009. ISBN: 9789113019635

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2009:2

In the film of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, as Audrey Tautou and Tom Hanks rush about the streets of London, one of them apparently says, ‘We need a library’, an unlikely line which understandably attracted critical derision. This clever and stylish debut novel turns the tables and offers us an exciting, multi-layered tale set in fin de siècle Vienna, in which books are the real heroes and Vatican bankers and Papal conspiracy theories have to take their allotted place in the literary jigsaw. The novel could almost be subtitled ‘The Editor’s Revenge’. Hermann Freytag is a retired and rather hidebound literary editor who has spent his whole career with Fischer & Wulff, a small, traditional Viennese publishing house on the Judenplatz. He leads a quiet life of faint self-mockery which revolves round reading the newspaper that reinforces his own views and smoking bitter cigarillos over coffee and poppy-seed strudel in his favourite café, with the occasional visit to the confessional and his parish priest. But a sequence of unprecedented events, coinciding with a small earthquake in the city and the first sighting of Halley’s Comet for over seventy years, shakes him out of his torpor. His wife leaves him, running off with her boss and sending spiteful postcards from their grand tour of Europe. Fischer & Wulff’s only bestselling author, the brilliant but dyslexic, almost illiterate, Boris Barsch, completes his new book and announces that he will accept no substitute for Freytag, his editor for many years. The publishing house owners, desperate to save its flagging fortunes, beg their ex-employee to agree to the task. Freytag meanwhile, deciding he should travel the world at last, has enrolled in Esperanto classes, and falls under the spell of his pretty young teacher Rosita, who tells him she, like so many other people, is longing to read Barsch’s long-awaited new novel. So Freytag comes out of retirement for her sake, and thus becomes the unwitting target of sinister forces. At language classes, he becomes acquainted with an unlikely fellow pupil, the suave Mr. Signori, who flatters him into accepting lavish invitations and slowly but surely reels the little man in. Freytag, for whom a manuscript is an overgrown garden to be tamed into beautiful order, is not aware that Barsch’s unpublished novel is a ticking bomb. Spurred by his liberal views, and memories of childhood abuse at the hands of the clergy, Barsch has written a book that will explode the rich and comfortable circles of vested financial interest round the Vatican. Signori, part of the inner circle, must stop publication and destroy Barsch at all costs. He recruits the easily duped Freytag as an unlikely spy and ally, but once the real situation begins to dawn on the hapless editor, he edits the manuscript and finds an ingenious way to secure its publication, though at great personal cost to himself.

Nilsson’s novel has a complex but clearly intelligible structure, interspersing Freytag’s story, set in 1910, with another chronology moving backwards from the election of a new Pope in 1903. This second strand charts shady meetings in many countries, revealing that the financiers’ tentacles are wrapped round cardinals, diplomats, government ministers and even the closest advisers of Emperor Franz Josef. These individual meetings seem to invite comparison with the chain reactions in Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler’s renowned Reigen (La Ronde).

There is a wonderful evocation of place and time, as Vienna embraces the twentieth century. Art, music and architecture reflect modernist, expressionist trends, anathema to classical, Goethe-loving conservatives like Freytag. Trams, telephones, typewriters and electric light have arrived, too, and the aesthetic and technological revolution is happening too fast for the older generation. What is more, there is an unsettling, doomsday atmosphere, as scientists warn that Halley’s Comet is full of poison gas and may collide with Earth within weeks. The Viennese rush to buy gasmasks and tinned food, while the more reckless hold Apocalypse parties and drink a new cocktail named Tremblement de terre.

Universally praised by the Swedish critics, this is the perfect stocking filler for any book lover, especially anyone with experience of the publishing trade, who will enjoy Nilsson’s knowing humour at its expense. At over five hundred gripping, well-written pages, however, it will need a substantial stocking.

Also by Henrik Nilsson

Other reviews by Sarah Death

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