This deceptively small book reads like a layered film noir. An innocent cab driver is drawn into a labyrinthine plot when his fare is shot and killed in the back seat. The driver, Sponer, is perhaps of less than average intelligence. He decides the best course of action is to drive around with the body and then get rid of it. He further determines to take on the dead man’s identity in order to confuse the timeline of events for later investigations.
It’s a subdued thriller. Each word, each scene is carefully constructed and linked to the next. The protagonist’s snowball of desperation builds slowly, layer by layer. This is a kind of suspense rarely seen in modern American writing or cinema these days. It has to be full of explosions, double-crosses and witty one-liners. This book ruminates and stews, while drawing the cord ever tighter.
For about ten minutes he raced aimlessly through the streets, then he came to his senses and looked around. He was in the ninth district, not far from the Liechtenstein Palace. He turned off the meter without thinking. The person for whom he’d turned it on wouldn’t be paying for the journey now. ~Pg. 42
The hero is an unlikely one, with no special-ops training or vendetta. Circumstance only has left him with an impossible problem. Much of the book is told through Sponer’s thoughts. The reader is able to see his logic (flawed though it is) take each step and realization.
Somewhere on the road, together with the luggage! Let the others , when they find him, work out for themselves how and when he’d been shot! He, Sponer, had nothing to do with it. Had he attacked him> No, it was rather the other way round. The chap had boarded an unsuspecting man’s cab, had snuffed it there and left the driver to pick up the pieces. ~Pg. 45
But when the writing is omniscient, the reader can see the noir style appear.
One believed it was possible to drive crime under the asphalt and the concrete of cities, under multi-storey buildings, roadways and churches. It could be confined, so it was thought, in canals under bridges, in abandoned cellars… But that was not true at all. It rose, it penetrated into houses, stations, offices. It penetrated into Mortimer’s bank, settled at his writing desk; it travelled with him to Europe, followed him invisibly like Satan followed Judas Iscariot, and dragged him down again into the underworld, without a sound, without a trace, without leaving a single clue. He sat there dead, as dead as a doornail, in the taxi with three bulletholes in him — that was all. ~Pg. 165-6
Reading books in translation can make any literary purist nervous. Have they accurately mirrored the author’s style? But short of becoming fluent in dozens of languages, readers than to take the leap of faith. This translation does indeed have a very clear voice. The German languages, which builds words by combining other words, an which follows a strict pattern of word order creates a specific cadence. The novel has this, and a very matter-of-fact tone that acts as a foil to the bizarre, unlikely circumstance of the story itself.
This novel is a sure hit with fans of Patricia Highsmith and Graham Greene, and films like D.O.A. and The Asphalt Jungle.
Many thanks to Brittney with Pushkin Press for the review copy. Pushkin, by the way, has several titles of great literature in translation, all with beautifully-designed covers.
Translated by Ignat Avsey
Cover illustration by Eda Akaltun
Series: Pushkin Collection
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Pushkin Press; Reprint edition (November 12, 2013)
Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 4.7 x 0.8 inches