Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Fear of Mirrors by Tariq Ali

The story as Gertrude told it sounded tedious.  I knew the tone well.  It was the voice she usually put on for outsiders when she decided to regale them with stories of her heroic past: her voice slightly raised, her nostrils slightly expanded, her eyes shining with a slightly fanatical gleam, but it was a mask.  I knew that from old because a tale told in this mood was never the same.  The events, the people and her own role were always different depending on the audience.  This time it was just her and me, but she had slipped on the old mask and I knew she was concealing the truth.  What memories was she trying to suppress, and why? (p.172)

Fear of Mirrors is a story of political and familial generations.  At the centre is Vladimir “Vlady” Meyer, a former university lecturer.  In the DDR, he was a dissident.  In the new Germany of the Christian Democrats, his dissidence is not enough to save him.  Vlady’s continued belief in socialism renders him undesirable, unemployable,  an anachronism.  Once again he is on the margins, this time without a job to sustain him.

Tariq Ali’s novel is to some extent about representations.  Vlady’s character is oddly fluid, his voice merging at times into that of an omniscient narrator.  The primary impression he gives is of tiredness; he seems lost and exhausted, although his past – and his present – speak of a tremendous capacity for strength.  His son, Karl – a bright young thing in the SPD – is unappealing, careerist, bland.  His mother Gertrude is a creature of the Revolution or perhaps more accurately of the Party; later we realise just to what extent the latter is true. Vlady himself is supposedly the outcome of her liaison with Ludwik, an Old Bolshevik who worked for Soviet Intelligence.  Vlady has an estranged wife and, as the apparent cause of that estrangement, a former lover: a film director called Evelyne who has embraced the new decadent aesthetic to a degree that ought to be shocking, but is tedious instead.

At first, the novel seems like a straightforward parable.  The stories of the central characters and their generations are told in sparse, elegant prose.  We hop from 1990s Germany to turn of the century Vienna, from bourgeois Munich to revolutionary Moscow and even to Vietnam, through the introduction of Vlady’s friend, the cheerfully unethical and immensely wealthy Sao. We learn about the protagonists and their allegiances, their loves and sorrows, desires and resentments.

But as the central narrative progresses, the familiar threads connecting the characters begin to unravel, to tangle and to tighten in new and uncomfortable formations.  Everything that seemed certain comes into question.  Gradually the reader takes on the role of horrified observer as a new set of stories emerges, and with it a series of ever more terrible truths.

This is a novel with a profound sense of history, but the focus remains firmly on the fictional protagonists.  Trotsky’s decline sends shockwaves through the narrative; it is no less poignant for remaining undescribed.  Likewise, there is no dissection of the rise of Stalin, but his presence in the story grows and darkens until it casts a black shadow of its own.  The advent of fascism is present in fire-scarred buildings, terrified children and discoveries – at second or third hand – of friends and relatives perished in concentration camps.  We find things out as the protagonists do: through experience, through the grapevine, sometimes not at all.

Too often historical novels are written with an overbearing sense of what we now know.  Fear of Mirrors is different, and this is its great strength.  Although the prose is clean and fast-moving, this is not an easy read; it is disturbing, sometimes sickening, and always compelling.  There is no comforting authorial didacticism to tell us what lesson we may take from it all, although the author’s sympathies do sometimes show through.  But this is primarily a work of empathy.  No matter how well you know the events in question, to read it is an education.

The edition reviewed was published by Arcadia Books in 1998 (ISBN:  978-1900850100)

A new edition of Fear of Mirrors will be released by Seagull Books in 2010.

5 comments on “Fear of Mirrors by Tariq Ali

  1. Christy
    April 27, 2010

    Great review. I do like it when historical novels aren’t too colored by the current hindsight.

  2. Melrose
    April 27, 2010

    I got a really strange feeling when I read the review of this book. If I were to read “Fear of Mirrors”, I felt that I would be drawn into it almost as a participant, rather than just an observer. The description of Gertrude’s storytelling is so down to earth; the half-knowledge and/or perceptions that most of us have about events or people, even members of our own family, is such an accurate observation; the horrifying feeling that what we thought was a certainty, and was bad enough, is about to be something completely different, and a lot worse – we can all relate to these experiences and understanding about life. Add in the volatility and human suffering of such unpredictable times, and I think here is a real historical novel that describes events ANY one of us could have been involved in.

  3. Jackie
    April 27, 2010

    It sounds quite ominous. The cover emphasizes that feeling with the colors & surrealist setting. I like generational stories, but I don’t think I could handle this one. It does sound like a complex book to review & distill, so my hat is off to you for that.

  4. Melrose
    April 28, 2010

    Like Jackie, the cover caught my attention too, and intrigued me. I found myself asking questions about how it would relate to the book, and I think it would draw me to read it to find out. Why is the figure who “isn’t there” stronger in presence than the grouping at the rear of the setting, who look quite insubstantial. The child, who seems to be an amputee, is strongly defined, again takes centre stage in the picture, and seems to be trying to integrate. Both the invisible chap and the disabled child seem to have almost been ostracised from the rest, who have turned away from them. And there’s the character walking off, bottom right, as if he had decided he’s going to go his own way. How does all that fit in with the characters’ lives in the book, I wonder? I am sure it does…

  5. Nikki
    April 28, 2010

    I love books that shift about through time and space, so that element really appeals to me. But on top of that, I love that it’s a meaty book. Definitely one I’d like to read.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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