My reading year started a bit late this year, but March brought me a great surprise in the form of Paul Auster’s Book of Illusions, his best work according to some critics.
A novel addresses existential issues and questions of identity, failure which comes from the individual’s uncertainty about the status of his own identity, and the work as a proof of one’s existence. “If a tree falls in a forest with nobody around, does it make a sound?“ If a man lives a life that nobody else notices, did he really live? It is a philosophical concept that Auster refers to at some point in this book.
The novel is told by a protagonist who is also a writer, which is a typical feature in Auster’s works: telling a story through the voice of another writer.
We are introduced to two main protagonists and are following their lives: a literature professor at a liberal arts college in Vermont David Zimmer (who is also the narrator in the novel) and a silent comedian Hector Mann alias Herman Loesser alias Hector Spelling (as he called himself in two of his other resurrected and redeemed lives). There are obvious parallels between the lives of Hector and David: their traumas and tragedies and randomness of events they both struggle against deciding that if they can’t control their lives, then they will not live them.
Hector Mann made 12 movies and then suddenly disappeared in 1929 leaving no trace. David Zimmer’s life is marked by a tragedy as his wife and two young sons died in a plane crash, which lead him to an almost catatonic existence of social isolation, and heavy drinking in front of television.
One day while watching a programme about silent movie makers David sees a short clip of a Hector Mann movie and it makes him laugh. He realises there is still something alive in him and that he needs a purpose, something to occupy his mind, to get him through every day.
He decides to write a book about Mann’s movies and travels abroad as far as Europe visiting different film museums and watching Mann’s films till he memorises all of them.
David’s book about Hector Mann’s movies gets published and one day he receives a letter from Hector’s wife saying she has read his book and invites him to visit Hector in New Mexico. David is suspicious, wants to believe that Hector is alive but is afraid of getting his hopes up. There comes a friend of Hector’s Alma and takes David to New Mexico to meet now an old and dying movie maker. From Alma David learns about Hector’s life after his disappearance and is determined to see Hector’s later work.
The novel gives us multiple stories, lives, deaths and resurrections. The silent comedian has made a series of new films during his years in New Mexico under the name of Hector Spelling, but decides that his entire work should be deleted and erased from history once he is gone. He is not aware that this destructive decision will not only affect him but also the people who love him, know him or want to know him.
David Zimmer narrates the novel while writing a book many years later to recount the story of that time in his life telling everything through his eyes, with his reactions to it, to Hector’s movies, Alma’s telling of Hector’s life, which sets a distance between David and the reader. He tells the story for his own purposes and clearly does not want us to read it the same as Hector wants his movies burned after his passing on.
Auster is an outstanding writer with unpretentious writing style, grabbing images and emotions. This is not a page-turning story that will leave you with a happy smile on your face, but a complex and absorbing novel that will make you think, and question your perspective on life. Speaking for myself, I can say that it will stay with me forever.