Monday, 21 September 2009
Book Review: The Glass Room by Simon Mawer
By the time I finished reading Simon Mawer’s Glass Room, not only was I conscious of having read a fine piece of literature, I was also convinced that Mawer is as good, if not better, than pulp fiction writers like Jeffrey Archer and John Grisham in packing mystery and suspense inside a novel. Before I say anything further, let me confess that I am big fan of fiction with a historical base. The Glass Room, set in Czechoslovakia from the period after the end of the First World War till the time when communism started to collapse in Eastern Europe, is one of the best pieces of historical fiction I have ever read.
There are many characters in the Glass Room, but it would not be possible to point anyone as the most important person in the story. Viktor Landauer, a Jewish businessman who owns a motor car manufacturing business is definitely one of the main characters, as is his Gentile German wife Liesel. Viktor and Liesel commission a German architect, Rainer von Abt, to build their dream house on the land gifted to them by Liesel’s father as a wedding gift. Believing that ornamentation is a waste, if not a crime, the Glass Room is built as a tribute to modernism, without any ounce of ornamentation and as a symbol of a clean break with the past. The story revolves around the Glass Room throughout, even after the Laundeurs flee from the Nazis and escape to the United States through Switzerland.
The Nazis convert the Glass Room into a laboratory where experiments are carried out on human beings. Here’s a conversation between Stahl, a German doctor, who heads the team that carries out research on human specimens in the Glass Room and Hana, Liesel’s closest friend who has stayed on. Stahl is explaining how his daughter Erika contracted infantile amaurotic congenital idiocy when she was very young.
He sits there in the Glass Room among the trappings of scientific measurement, in the pure proportions of the place, and talks of irrationality and senselessness. ‘It’s to do with a chemical, a particular kind of fat that the body makes when it shouldn’t. It accumulates in the brain and somehow turns the nerve cells off, that’s what the specialists say. It’s what’s called an inborn error of metabolism. Inside me, inside every cell in my body there is this genetic mutation. Recessive. You need one from each parent before you have the disease.’
‘So Hedda had it too.’
‘Of course she did. The same mutation, running in our family, but brought together by our union.’ He pauses. ‘It’s one of the Jew diseases.’
‘A Jew disease? Is there such a thing?’
‘Jews particularly suffer from it, along with many other diseases of that kind. Degeneracy, you see. They are a degenerate people.’
‘And does having it make you a Jew?’
‘It doesn’t make me a Jew, but some Jew introduced the disease into the family four generations ago. A great-great-grandfather. That is what I believe.’
She comes over from the windows and stands beside the piano. ’And the baby? When was this? I mean, is the baby still_’
‘Do you know how such children die? Finally they lose the ability to swallow. You try to feed them but they just choke everything up. Either they starve to death or they die of pneumonia. There is nothing anyone can do. Nothing.’
‘And that’s what happened?’
‘No, that’s not what happened.’
After the Nazis are overthrown and the proletariat takes over, the Glass Room becomes a gymnasium. The original owners are never forgotten by Mawer and towards the end of the book, one gets to see them again. Not only that, many loose ends are tied up in the final thirty pages or so of this absolutely wonderful book. I wouldn’t want to say any more and spoil the fun for those who read this review.
There were a few bits I didn’t like, such as when Kata Katalin ends up in the Landauer residence, aka the Glass Room, after she becomes a refugee. However, such instances are very few and far in between and are within Mawer’s author’s licence.
To summarise, this is an absolutely brilliant book. There is suspense, there is violence, there is eroticism, there is history, all of which is tied together by Mawer’s brilliant writing. The Glass Room is one of the six books shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2009 and is, in my view, a very strong contender for the trophy.