Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Review: Road trip with artist

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Daniel Kehlmann’s Me and Kaminski, translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway, is an amusing and humorous story about its narrator, Sebastian Zollner – a man who’s confident in himself, though it appears that no one around him cares about him or what he’s doing – who wants to write a biography of the eccentric, legendary painter Manuel Kaminski – a man who, though being a painter, is going blind and lives with his overprotective daughter. The question is whether Kaminski is working on his next masterpiece or has he given up. Has the new wave of artists taken away people’s interest in Kaminski? And is Zollner too late in writing this biography of Kaminski – for Kaminski’s sake or for Zollner’s own?

Zollner is someone who is overly nervous about his own career, which seems to be waning, even though he’s young. He’s terribly conscious over his appearance, over his stories. And yet he’s not aware enough to notice that his girlfriend has moved on from him, that his colleagues don’t trust him to get his job done. We’re in the hands of an untrustworthy narrator, and it seems that Kaminski’s daughter knows that too. She won’t allow Zollner to interview her father without her being in their presence. Therein lies the rub: how to get Kaminski away from her daughter so that Zollner can get a free and uninhibited interview with this artist. It involves a slight break-in and discussion of where the only woman Kaminski ever loved is. She’s alive, she’s nearby, and this may be the last chance that Kaminski will get to ‘see’ her. And with Zollner, he’s able to take advantage of this opportunity. Quickly we realize that Kaminski is not going to be the passive man that we take him for, that he’s going to get what he wants, when he wants it.
The novel bumbles along and Zollner and Kaminski make a decent odd couple, although the development of who they are seems like it skims along without diving too deep. As it’s a short book, there’s not too much to account for – it’s more about their banter and our interest in seeing the characters attain their goals in what seems to be the twilight of their lives and careers. It’s certainly a more comic look at a biographer and his invasiveness into an artist’s life, a complement to Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost, but overall it’s a novel where the reader will feel there was too much of a whirlwind and not enough calm, not enough time to contemplate the characters, feel for their plight. As it stands, it’s a stock story filled with stock characters, but definitely a page turner.
Review copy provided by publisher.

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