In novels like Lolita and The Catcher in the Rye, readersare asked to follow an unreliable protagonist in hopes of gaining anew perspective by the end of the journey. In Benjamin Stein snovel The Canvas, translated from German by Brian Zumhagen,readers are met by not one, but two unreliable narrators AmnonZichroni and Jan Wechsler each eager to take the story in theirown direction. Stein s meticulously crafted plotlines are socomplete with details and recurring anxieties that by the end ofboth narrations, it is even difficult to separate the twonarrators. Though each story starts in a different time andlocation, they end up irreversibly and eerily fused so that it isimpossible to say which narrator is telling the truth. |
Thisindeterminate treatment of truth is one of the greatest strengthsof the novel. The physical layout of the book accomplishes as much for the novelas the intertwined plotlines. One story reads from the front to theback and the other story reads from back to front; readers are thusstuck flipping the novel over and back to keep up with bothnarrations. Just as the narrators choose how to tell their stories,readers are similarly free to choose the order and method by whichto read them. Behind each cover is a possible starting point forthe action, reads the disclaimer on both front and back covers.
Where you begin reading is up to you, or to chance. The verdictof the innocence or guilt of each narrator is different dependingon the order in which the stories are read. Only a confident andskillful writer like Stein would give such a dangerous privilege tohis readers. Both narrators focus their stories on the murky concept of memory,each determined to uncover the true past. Each time we remember,we reshape, filter, separate and connect, add in, take out, andreplace the original bit by bit over time through the memory of amemory, says Amnon.
Who, then, can say what really happened? Stein sketches a fuzzy reality in which mysticism and lies resideclose to the actual the truth. Amnon and Jan, both Jewish, travel through Switzerland, Germany,the United States, and Israel at different times, each wandering insearch of an ultimately unattainable sense of belonging. WhileJan s narrative starts in the middle of his life when he ismarried with two children, Amnon s narrative begins with hischildhood. As Jan s examination of his own life travels backwardinto personal memories he has forgotten or suppressed, Amnon snarration travels forward as he encounters the memories of othercharacters. Stein backs up the struggles of both of his narratorswith parts of Jewish text in a unique combination of religious andmystical anecdotes.
This combination of modern and biblicalcomparisons creates points of convergence between the two stories.While maintaining distinct voices for each of his narrators, Steindraws the ideas and memories of each closer and closer until bothminds arrive at a common character: Minsky, a man whose made-upmemoir of his childhood in a concentration camp is ousted by JanWechsler. The character of Minsky draws inspiration from BinjaminWilkomirski, a man who published a fabricated memoir in 1997 abouthis supposed childhood as Holocaust survivor. Wilkomirski s fraudwas revealed by a Swiss journalist three years after his memoir waspublished. The same sort of controversy exists in The Canvas, though this time, Stein casts doubt on whether the Swissjournalist in this novel, Jan Wechsler was right in his claims offraud.
The reader meets Minsky in both Jan s and Amnon s narrations, andhe is portrayed as a victim of the media in both stories. Hislife, as he described it to me on our way back from Poland,appeared to him like a canvas, like an oversized, forgedpainting, says Amnon. He was stripping away the colors in orderto reveal the primer coat, the first five years of his life, thathad been crudely painted over. Either Minsky s memories areincorrect, though they are real to him, or he is lying. Thisdichotomy exists almost ironically in Jan s story as well.
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