I’m a believer that the most important aspect of reading a book is what happens to the reader. I think that’s true of experiencing any art form—one’s experience of the art is what ultimately matters, not the critical interpretations of the work. So often a book, a movie, a film, a painting, impact us for only a moment. I’m an attentive reader, but often after a spell, I have only a warbled impression of a novel I’ve read. Whatever has happened to me in reading the book, if anything, is fleeting. The ones that stick, those are treasures beyond measure. We carry within us the novels we’ve loved. They become part of us and thereby change us, altering us forever more.
So it is with Jürgen Fauth’s Kino. It’s the one-year anniversary of its publication and for that whole year, I’ve been watching it on the hectic movie screen in my mind. I imagine it will always flicker there, for this exquisitely constructed novel endures.
Every good novel requires a treason of sorts to be appreciated. We must abandon that which we know and enter into a strange land that somehow resonates. We must go where the writer leads us and we do so willingly, we burn our flag, so hungry to be transported are we. Kino rewards us for our faith.
As Kino begins, we follow Mina Koblitz, a young, newly married American woman from the arrival of a mysterious film at her home in New York to Berlin (leaving her husband, hospitalized with dengue fever, behind) as she seeks to unravel the mystery of the film and her own history.
The silent film, The Tulip Thief, was made in the 1920’s by Mina’s grandfather, Klaus Koblitz, known as Kino, the German word for film. Kino’s films were thought to have been destroyed by the Nazis before Kino emigrated to the United States, but as Mina learns, nothing about Kino—his life or his films—is as it would seem.
For me, that’s the hinge on which the novel swings to brilliance. It’s an identity tale, really, asking big questions, seeking answers steeped in the very fabric of what it means to be human. How much of who someone is is “real” and how much is whatever story we believe about them? What is “real” anyway? If we believe something to be true, do the facts matter? Really? How much? How accurate is any memory and what shapes our recollections? Some reviewers have called this magnificent, swirling creation of Fauth’s a thriller and I agree, in the sense that it is indeed thrilling to be pushed by a new novel to consider such ideas. Especially when the ideas come packaged in such a sublime way as they do in Kino.
Kino is finely written with smart yet accessible language that moves us along at a steady clip through myriad scenes and richly rendered characters alongside historic figures like Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl. The novel works in sections of Kino’s diary, adding to the complex rendering of the man as well as a deeper sense of questioning about the notion of reality versus perception. Fauth’s research is splendid and resplendent—the book offers us a rich slice of precise German history giving the character driven story a nuanced historical narrative as well as a serious meditation on the power of art to influence reality, in fact, become reality. When a friend asked me while I was reading the book what it was about I said, “Among other things, it’s about the idea that art is everything.” As Kino said in his journal, “Even when the Nazis burned my movies, I clung to hope. You have marked me crazy and yet you ask me to explain myself. Art will prevail! I’ll make another movie yet. Cinema cannot be detained!”
Kino is also a consideration of what endures and what gets lost—accidentally or purposefully—in translation and storytelling in any form. As Mina’s grandmother says about Kino’s films: “A screen doesn’t just show things, it also hides them.” When we translate between languages, cultures, generations, we have the power to illuminate—to share a work that was otherwise unknowable with an entirely new people. There is also tremendous power to change the story—to conceal secrets, to hide a controversial or inconvenient past, to leave the negative behind and only pass hagiography on to subsequent generations, or to eliminate aspects of history all together by never rendering them visible. At one point Kino’s son, Mina’s father, laments Mina’s quest: “Anything she wants to know about her grandfather, I can tell her. Anything at all…What else does she need to know?” Sometimes another’s interpretation is not enough. We need to find the story for ourselves, translate the facts for ourselves.
Kino is concerned both with what we translate and how we translate. With how both desire to share—or lack thereof—and technology shape us. In Kino, there is only one projector in existence that will allow Mina to view her grandfather’s film. Conveyance is fragile. If the medium disappears so does the message. Kino is, as much as anything, an allegory for our times. As technology advances, as the old world gives way to new, we have access to ever more material, and yet, too, we leave our histories behind. Our archives are at the same time ubiquitous and, in part, unknowable.
And so too is an individual in part, at least, unknowable. As the novel draws to a close, Mina is zipping through California and we finally learn that the truth of Kino is not in his telling of events, or in his films, or in the stories Mina has known of him or in the stories she has been told. We learn the truth and unravel the secrets along with Mina from an aggregation of the stories, the perspectives, the views. The complexity of her grandfather’s story, the contradictions, imbue us with a sense that wonder and endurance co-exist right alongside failure and near obscurity. The past doesn’t just linger; it’s right here with us. But nothing is as it seems, and maybe perspective is the only thing that allows any story to be told. Each and every one of us assembles our own reality through fragments of understanding. Perspective builds perspective. It takes a talented writer like Fauth to at once sharpen and widen our own perspective, as this book so aptly does.
Just as her grandfather paid dearly for his art, by the end of Kino, Mina has paid quite a life price to reclaim her grandfather—or has she? Magnificent questions linger, has art merely illuminated the truth of her life or has it truly cost her? Was it worth it? Is it ever? Is it always? The novel’s questions are resolved when the book ends, but the questions we ask ourselves because of it will go on, and in seeking their answers we are ever changed. As Kino changed the world, so too does Kino have the power to change us readers. Such is the magic of art. Such is Kino. Read it.