A Secret Big Enough to Fill Six Suitcases - Maxim Biller's Search for Answers to a Family Mystery

October 05, 2018

As already mentioned in my overview of the six German Book Prize shortlisted nominees, Maxim Biller is no stranger to the German literary scene. However, one thing I was unaware of was that his elder sister Elena Lappin is also an accomplished writer. In fact, I happened to read her memoir What Language Do I Dream In? a week after I read Biller’s seemingly autobiographical book of trickery. However, my order of reading the two books made me question how it is possible to write so differently about the same family.

One of the main differences is that the secret and central motivation for Lappin’s memoir is her discovery—in her mid-forties—that her biological father is someone other than the man she grew up with. In Biller’s version this theme is not mentioned with a single word. Although it quickly becomes clear that none of the narrators are very reliable, the focus of Biller’s search is finding out who betrayed and is ultimately responsible for the murder of his Tata or grandfather. All three sections are set primarily in different times and places: starting in Prague, but also Moscow, Hamburg, and Montreal.

As a boy living in Prague of the 1960s with his parents Rada and Sjoma (who translates from Czech into Russian), little Maxim only has a limited scope of insight in key events. His uncle Dima is married to the successful filmmaker Natalia, the remaining two uncles far away in West Berlin and Brazil, respectively. We are introduced to the story just as Dima is scheduled to be released from five years in an infamous Czech prison, as depicted by Sjoma and Rada, respectively. In the third section Maxim, who now lives in Hamburg, visits Dima in Zurich as an angst-filled teen. This is followed by a long, anguished letter from Natalia in Montreal to Sjoma, with whom she was in a relationship before choosing to marry Dima. The final two “suitcases” of storytelling come from Lev, before and after Dima’s funeral, and a present-day version of Jelena (Elena). And I’m not spoiling too much when I tell you the final lines depict Elena on her way from a television interview about her memoir.

One of the best parts of this unique detective story is how much detail he gives each telling, only to have the supposedly established ‘facts’ contradicted by the next chapter. The ostentatious couch in the family’s Prague apartment is one example: in turns, it is described as red, yellow or blue, the fabric described as coarse or fine, for some it is generous and comfy, others remember it as narrow and hard. But it’s not just the sleight of hand that makes this stand out is the polished, well-crafted sentences, and a cast of figures who possess the right mix of chutzpah and irony. In the end, readers may realize they haven’t discovered what they were hoping to, but have learned much about Prague, East-bloc politics, and the dynamics of a Jewish family flung into the wind during the second half of the 20th century. What’s more, it’s a page-turner that clocks in at just over 200 pages.

Share this article Facebook Twitter Mail