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. Read the rest of this entry »