The Pages: A Novel
- By Hugo Hamilton
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Colin Asher
- February 7, 2022
A multilayered tale of cruelty and redemption told through the eyes of a century-old book.
On the night of May 10, 1933, it rained unexpectedly in Berlin, the narrator of Hugo Hamilton’s The Pages recalls, soaking a crowd gathered on the Opernplatz and threatening the evening’s events. But disaster was avoided. Providently, a pyrotechnic company had safeguarded against uncooperative weather by constructing a wooden structure atop a bed of sand and drenching it in accelerant. No matter the heavenly intervention, great heaps of books were going to burn.
There were tens of thousands of people in the plaza, drawn by the promise of flames and a speech by Joseph Goebbels. While they waited, students murmuring nationalist slogans entered the State Library and began searching its shelves for un-German books. When they snatched offending texts from their resting places, the books said “quick goodbyes” to one another before they were carried off.
The students passed the books they collected from hand to hand in a chain linking library and plaza, then threw each one onto the pyre. When it was lit, they felt triumphant. “This was their moment,” the narrator explains. “Their revenge on learning…This was their chance to step outside received wisdom and take part in a glorious act of self-vandalism. Returning to a time before knowledge. The right not to know.”
The narrator observes these events from beneath the coat of a young man named Dieter Knecht, hidden and secure — a seemingly impossible feat achievable only because the narrator of The Pages is not a person or an omniscient voice but a book. Specifically, it’s a German first edition of the real-life Joseph Roth’s 1924 novel, Rebellion — a slim text which Knecht holds in place by pressing his arm against his chest while he watches flames devour his country’s literary inheritance.
A novel narrated by a novel — it’s a conceit that could easily devolve into kitsch. But in Hamilton’s hands, it does not.
Rebellion, as personified in The Pages, is a survivor. It, too, was marked for immolation on the Opernplatz that night in ’33 but has survived for decades since Knecht saved it, collecting stories as it traveled from owner to owner and shelf to shelf — observing people, conversing with other texts, growing wiser. It embodies literature’s ability to bind us together and make us comprehensible to one another across decades, oceans, languages, and borders. And so, employing it as a narrator reads as an expression of faith, not a gimmick.
It helps that Hamilton chose his vehicle well. Rebellion and the story of its author’s life — both of which play prominent roles in The Pages — each contain themes that echo recursively across the near-century since the book’s publication.
Rebellion is the story of Andreas Pum — a wounded veteran of World War I, an organ grinder working Vienna’s streets, and a cuckold. He’s an almost comically insignificant man, and over the course of the novel, the insults and indignities he suffers, and the grievances he harbors, come to dominate his consciousness. By the time he dies an early and ignoble death in a washroom, the reader has come to understand his generation’s traumas through his struggle — their disorientation, their impotent fury, their desire for stability and order.
Roth, Rebellion’s author, was a fatherless child who rose to become one of the highest paid journalists in Europe. He penned 16 novels, traveled widely, and wrote reams of commentary and news copy. Though he was Jewish and in no way naïve about the threat posed by the Nazis, he didn’t flee Berlin until Hitler became chancellor. Soon afterward, Roth’s books were burned in the streets. He selected Paris as the setting of his final act and drank himself to death there in 1939. The next year, the Germans destroyed the entire print run of his final novel.
Rebellion, Pum, Roth — these characters are the frame upon which Hamilton builds his story, and he layers much atop them. There are storylines and storylines within storylines in The Pages, some echoing each other across decades, others shooting off into the distance.
The book’s sole through-line is Lena Knecht, Dieter Knecht’s granddaughter and owner of the copy of Rebellion that he saved from the fire in 1933. An artist, she has become fixated on a hand-drawn map that the text’s original owner added to a blank page. It contains no location name and no directional markers, only depictions of a bench, a stream, a bridge, a forest, and buildings. It’s an impossibly slim amount of information to work with, but as The Pages begins, Lena is flying from the States to Berlin to discover where the map leads.
Lena’s quest coheres the book’s narrative, but the path she travels and the recollections it generates are more important than its conclusion. The great many events chronicled in The Pages include the following: The narrator’s original owner entrusts Rebellion to Lena’s grandfather, who hides it for years; Andreas Pum, once a patriot, is betrayed by his government and imprisoned; Roth’s wife, Friedl, is institutionalized and then murdered by the Nazis; a reading group dismisses Rebellion (“It’s all so dead white male”); Lena flees Philadelphia after her father witnesses a racist assault; and German soldiers detain a young Jewish couple on the night of their wedding, never allowing them to reunite.
Observing and recounting all of this is Lena’s copy of Rebellion. The book asserts itself by pointing out, through the use of anecdote and reminiscence, where history rhymes. The connections it makes are often disquieting. Love — both familial and romantic — has a potent and vexing quality throughout. Refugees are a constant, and fascism is a persistent threat. The narrator managed to survive the Nazi regime unscathed, but in the present day, a Neo-Nazi mauls it and then defaces and shoots it.
In one of the few moments where the narrator speaks directly about the similarities between past and present, it expresses a warning:
“My time is coming back. Listen to what my author wrote to his friend Stefan Zweig a hundred years ago — the barbarians have taken over.
“Don’t deceive yourself. All hell is coming.”
This would seem to be an especially dark assessment of our current epoch — though maybe not a misguided one — but it’s not one that Hamilton appears to endorse. In place of nihilism, he places his faith in the written word and the strength of our common human culture. In an author’s note, he explains himself by quoting the German Jewish writer and poet Heinrich Heine and then expanding on Heine’s ideas.
“Wherever they burn books, they will end up burning human beings,” he paraphrases Heine. To which Hamilton adds, referencing Dieter Knecht’s long-ago act of heroism on the Opernplatz, “[Heine’s] words continue to resonate a century later, not only because they warn us about censorship and human rights abuses, but also because they can be turned around by a single act of courage to be read as — wherever they save a book from burning, they will end up saving human beings.”
Colin Asher is the author of Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren. His writing has appeared in the Believer, the New Republic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, and many other publications.