Sand, by Wolfgang Herrndorf

“Are you entirely sure that you don’t know who you are?”

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Let’s start with what I put on Goodreads, five minutes after finishing Sand:

Excellent and horrible. Parts of it are reminiscent of what James Bond might have been like if Fleming had been a decent writer; parts of it are like desert Le Carré; quite a bit of it is like surreal, blackly-comic Greene. You have no idea what’s happening for the first hundred pages and then it all clicks, the characters’ relations to each other make sense, and you’re off. Gloriously, there are no good guys, except perhaps for our amnesiac protagonist, who takes his name (Carl) from the designer’s label inside his suit. The ending laughs majestically in the face of narrative justice. It’s incredible.”

Now let’s back up. Sand does not start with amnesiac Carl. It starts with Polidorio and Canisades, two post-colonial policemen in Morocco circa 1972. The Olympic Games at Munich have just been defiled by the abduction and murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. The world is hot and nervous. Polidorio and Canisades are called upon to investigate the murder of four people at a hippie commune, apparently by a Moroccan national of seemingly boundless stupidity by the name of Amadou Amadou. Something about the case feels not quite right, but the evidence all adds up and Amadou is on his way to be hanged—until his prison truck is involved in a traffic accident and he is sprung free. The police seem incapable of finding him again; Polidorio is summoned to his chief inspector’s office and informed that, due to the wishes of important people, Amadou will not be found at all, full stop, end of story.

Interspersed with this are chapters following American Helen Gliese, who supposedly works for a cosmetic company but whose sample case was mysteriously and conveniently lost on the docks as she disembarked in Morocco. Helen, who has what the back cover describes as “a talent for being underestimated”, picks up Carl at a desert petrol station; he is wandering aimlessly, covered in blood, having just extricated himself from a scene of distressing violence at a barn in the middle of nowhere with no memory of who he is or what he was doing there. Helen is also acquainted with one of the residents of the commune, a dippy woman called Michelle who reads tarot cards but tends to cheat the deck by removing the Hanged Man.

Once Helen and Carl come together with Michelle, it’s clear that there are wheels within wheels. Up to this point, it hasn’t been at all clear; because Herrndorf starts us off at a point so peripheral to the main action (and, perhaps not coincidentally, to the description on the back of the book), we’re left completely disoriented for quite a long time. Being thrown off balance at the start doesn’t always impress me, but it does here because Herrndorf so obviously knows what he’s doing, even though we don’t. On he marches through the setup of his plot, unspooling authorial confidence behind him, and we follow. By the time Carl meets Helen, you’re in it for the long haul.

Carl is an innocent, and not only by virtue of being unable to remember anything. His actions and reactions (and inactions) are often inexplicably odd. Briefly captured by a white-haired crime lord named Adil Bassir, he has his hand nailed to the table by a letter-opener but does not take the opportunity to explain that he has lost his memory. Helen is baffled: “If I’d been nailed to a desk with a letter-opener I’d have told him a thing or two.” “I had the feeling,” Carl says helplessly, “that I didn’t know what he didn’t know. He just didn’t know that I didn’t know. If I had told him, what would he have done with me?” He panics at the wrong times, is calm at the wrong times. He cries a lot. He is simply, undeniably goofy. And yet we can also feel terrible pity for him, because we can project onto his blank exterior: is there anyone more deserving of kindness than someone lost and vulnerable who doesn’t understand what’s happening to them?

But it’s precisely Carl’s amnesia that also complicates his character. Late on in the book, he is captured and tortured for information that he doesn’t (of course) have. In the course of this unpleasantness, one of his tormentors pinpoints the problem with creating sympathy for the unknown:

“You have something that belongs to us. That we discovered. Our scientists. And that’s why we are the good guys: we built the bomb and wreaked havoc with it. But we learned from that. We’re the adaptive system. Hiroshima shortened the war, and you can argue about Nagasaki—but it’s not going to happen a third time. We will stop it from happening a third time. In our hands the bomb is nothing more than an ethical principle. Put the same bomb in your hands and we’d be heading toward a catastrophe that would make everything else look like nothing more than a minor headache by comparison.”

Whether this rosy picture of American military morality is legitimate or not isn’t the point of this passage; the point of the passage is to awaken uncertainty in the reader. Who, after all, is Carl? We know nothing about him. He knows nothing about himself. Can we be so certain that he isn’t—or wasn’t—involved in hideous plans? We only know what we’ve seen of him, in a very particular, impotent context. What is the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? One’s point of view. And the difference between an innocent man and a guilty one, Herrndorf seems to be saying, is sometimes just the same.

Readerly investment in Carl increases as the book goes on. He is made to suffer a great deal, and by the end of the book our perspective is confined almost entirely to his experiences, so that we can’t help but identify with him. Whether he was or is a terrorist or not, Herrndorf clearly shows us a human: one who fears and tries and clings tenaciously to whatever scrap of a chance is held out to him, one who wants more than anything else to live. So when I say that the ending laughs in the face of narrative justice, what I mean is that it leaves the reader with a sense of wall-pounding noooooooo-ness that you might recognise if you’ve read Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions or watched the film There Will Be Blood. It’s an ending that looks sideways at your high school lit class and everything you learned there about the blueprints for fiction, then smiles wryly, puts out its cigarette on its tongue, and kicks the shit out of teleology. It is, in other words, an ending as true to true life as anything I’ve ever read, and it makes the point that Friedrich Durrenmatt is trying to make in The Pledge about falseness in genre narrative with significantly greater raw grace than Durrenmatt manages. (Sorry, Durrenmatt.)

Wolfgang Herrndorf died of a brain tumour in 2013, at the age of forty-eight. He wrote an earlier book, translated in English as Why We Took the Car, but Sand will be his last. It alone ought to assure him a place in twenty-first century literary history: it’s bold, anarchic, blackly funny, and completely unafraid.

Many thanks as always to the publicity folks at Pushkin for a review copy. Sand is published in the UK on 30 March.

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