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Daniel Kehlmann. Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes.

Daniel Kehlmann. Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes. Carol Brown Janeway, tr. New York. Pantheon. 2010. 175 pages. $24. ISBN 978-0-307-37871-2


The successful German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann, whose Measuring the World (2005; see WLT, Jan. 2008, 63) was translated into some forty languages with sales figures of over 1-5 million worldwide, presents us with a different kind of novel in 2010, again masterfully translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway.

Kehlmann leaves history behind and delves into a new type of "measuring" the world, this time our twenty-first century in which information technology has taken over our private and public lives. In nine interconnected stories, he deals with some aspects of the vital but perplexing realm of technical communication. While critics are debating whether this work can really be considered a novel or a collection of stories, readers are enjoying the lighter vein in what is a superbly funny, often grotesque, but also serious, even ominous, multiple mirror of our lives in this new reality of addictive technical communication.

He playfully projects the consequences of total accessibility, especially when a malfunctioning cell phone ("Mobiltelefon") leaves one virtually hanging in thin air. Lost in the forest of technology, helpless without the restoring magic formula, Goethe's comic poem "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" comes to mind, where the old broom-turned-servant floods an entire town in the absence of the master magician's redeeming spell, with the difference that once unleashed, the techno-communicative disasters seem unstoppable, with the master's voice (read "service center') unavailable.

We are all familiar with the small glitch that can turn over our bank accounts, IDs, private lives, desires--and a country's political and military secrets--into the public realm to be relentlessly seen, heard, and commented upon by all. This becomes Kehlmann's new artistic world. A small glitch by a distracted cell phone company employee (hooked on the Internet) initiates the cataclysm in the first episodic novel. We find out later that by this small mistake a number of refurbished cell phones were sold to new customers without canceling the old owners' numbers. One of these ends up in the hands of the computer technician Ebling (episode "Voices'), who is lured into impersonating the famous actor Ralf Tanner. He becomes socially irresponsible in this virtual reality, with serious consequences for him, his family, and the movie star. The actor, cut off from his former life, his connections and working world, loses his own identity. The changed nature of identity is a constant topic throughout the book--creating it in the virtual world, impersonating someone else, stealing it, using it as an artistic device to create one's own characters.

Most of the stories break off after a communications "glitch" has unhinged the characters' lives and an identity switch has taken place. We are left to ponder the consequences.

The title, Fame (a most volatile asset in our telecommunications world), seems an appropriate topic for an author who at thirty-five years of age has collected a dozen or so of the most coveted European literary prizes. Whereas Measuring the World was hailed as one of the most important novels in postwar German writing, next to Gunter Grass's Tin Drum, the present book might point to the lighter vein presented, for example, in Thomas Mann's lighthearted novel Felix Krull, about a charming confidence trickster who changes characters and identities.

Marie Luise Caputo-Mayr

New York
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Author:Caputo-Mayr, Marie Luise
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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