In 1939, five-year-old Jacques Austerlitz is sent to England on a Kindertransport and placed with foster parents. This childless couple promptly erase from the boy all knowledge of his identity and he grows up ignorant of his past. Later in life, after a career as an architectural historian, Austerlitz – having avoided all clues that might point to his origin – finds the past returning to haunt him and he is forced to explore what happened fifty years before
somewhere I came across a list of translated books that ‘should’ be read so seeing this in Oxfam, it was worth a £2 punt for an author I’ve never read before; literature in exchange for a bit of cash to be towards ending poverty sounds like the noblest form of deal to me.
For such a small sum, what was handed over was a sensitively handled tale of melancholy, an exploration of the fragility of life and the horrors of history. It’s also a book of secrets – in a personal and wider sense of history – of eliminated past and the memories of another time. In short this was a bargain at the price and well worth a read for anybody passing by (or going out of their way for) a copy.
The name Austerlitz can be recognised both as a town near the battle of the same name (Napoleon beating combined armies of Russia and Austria) and also a railway station in Paris. It’s this latter that is more immediately symbolic, it’s an intersection, a point in the lives of many people, where they go meet, move on and a place one suspects holds many memories. It is surely not a coincidence that we first meet Austerlitz in a railway station.
Austerlitz as character is a methodical and observant architectural historian, one who lives intensely in his own world, lost to wider history but taken with the form of buildings. The telling of his story is both articulate and detached, shaped by loss of people and deprived of his earliest memories, it’s a poignant position with which the reader connects and is the perfect platform for the piecing together of a personal history of another time.
Told with an experienced world wary voice, the book is a mixture of many different genres, travel book, memoir, guide to architecture, history book and part detective story, it’s a blend that is to be savoured as the story is peeled back one layer at a time. For those of you who like a story that meanders sometimes, there are digressions aplenty which did – the odd time – make me impatient to progress but I’m glad it was written this way as each digression is fascinating.
It’s a book that can be read quickly though, the pages seem to fly by, partly because it is so readable and also because of the photos and maps which are liberally scattered throughout, allowing the reader more of a connection with places or to better understand an architectural point. The photographs are all black and white and whilst colour would have made them more clearer and given more detail, the monochrome images does help connect the reader to the past and I find them more beautiful in an understated way just for that reason.
If I had to pick a minor irritant it would be the need to punctuate Austerlitz’s reminiscences with a reference to the speaker, putting for example ‘said Austerlitz’ every so often is unnecessary, I know he is speaking, he is telling me his story. Reminding me just shatters the spell I was so frequently under and pulls me out of the that time to the modern-day where he is telling it, for no purpose other than presumably as a natural break as there are hardly any paragraphs and only a handful of line breaks throughout the whole book. There are no speech marks either, yet I found it oddly less annoying than I do with Cormac McCarthy’s works.
With its mixing of genres the book is both intriguing and moving. It has an atmosphere of sombreness in regards to the faded remnants of the past, yet also seems dislocated from real life with its chance meetings. The characters felt unworldly, like their stories, epxeriences and lives may never have happened but in reality are a testament to the lost people with their hopes and dreams, obliterated by the horror and cruelties of war. All this is not a negative though it just adds to this arty and understated read that is as precisely defined as any of the great old buildings.