Monday, August 8, 2016

filled to brimming with paranoia: Saint Peter's Snow, by Leo Perutz

Pushkin Vertigo, 2016
originally published as Sankt Petri-Schnee
translation by Eric Mosbacher
188 pp


When I got to the end of this book, my first reaction was a very jolting "what?" but in the space of a couple of seconds, it changed to "ah, I get it."

 Saint Peter's Snow was originally published in 1933 by Austrian publisher Paul Zsolnay,  whom the Nazis labeled as a "Jewish" publisher, causing many of his writers' works (including that of Perutz, also living in Austria)  to be banned in Germany.  I mention this little tidbit of information because it might help to put the book in historical context, which is very important in this case,  and also so that anyone who may be interested in Saint Peter's Snow won't have the "what?" reaction I did because I'd completely forgotten about it.  Enough of that, now briefly to the book.

I was seriously caught up in this strange book from the beginning because as the novel opens, the main character, Georg Amberg, has evidently been in a deep coma, and on coming out of it, has lost his memory.  First, what he thinks he remembers and what he's told is the reason why he's laid up in a hospital bed are two different animals; second, he thinks he's been there five days but he's been told it's been five weeks, and third, he's absolutely positive that the hospital porter attending him is a disguised Prince Praxatin, "the last of the house of Rurik." Huh??  So right away the reader feels a sense of disorientation along with the main character, and that feeling continues throughout the rest of the book.  The story then launches into Amberg's recollections about the time leading up to his hospitalization, but the reader doesn't quite know if this is a product of his damaged memory or if what he's saying is actually what happened.  It's a balancing act where the reader walks a fine line -- you have to decide if what Amberg remembers is actually true and if you go that route, then you have to wonder why the doctors, nurses and others may be trying to insist that he's delusional.  It's an interesting scenario, for sure, and I found myself trying to find clues to support both sides of that argument, and there are a number of them scattered here and there throughout this story.

 I think that's about all I'll say for the time being except for the fact that the word "sinister" can most definitely can be applied to this book, along with twisty, dark, and strange.  If anyone's at all interested in trying this novel, don't read anything that may spoil it. The back-cover blurb, in my opinion, gives a bit too much away, but I will repeat and agree with the part that says
"Saint Peter's Snow is a conspiratorial, politically charged tale of suspense about the mysterious workings of memory, and the lies we choose to believe." 
It's a novel just steeped in paranoia, and it's right up my reading alley, one I can recommend to anyone who loves obscure fiction stepping well off the beaten path.

I'll also say that even if Perutz himself wasn't Jewish, or even if his publisher hadn't been labeled as such, the Nazis likely would have banned this book from publication strictly based on the subject matter.   Perutz's work, according to several sources I've read (not limited to but including the "Did You Know" section of this edition), was highly regarded by Borges among other people, so you know it's going to be different and well worth reading.  It's a very satisfying read, but do try to remember the historical context to avoid the shaking-my-head reaction at the end.

  Pushkin Vertigo keeps coming out with some great books (Vertigo and She Who Was No More for starters); I had to buy this one from the UK but it was totally worth it.

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