Book review: “Spies” by Marcel Beyer

Translation from the German by Breon Mitchell

I had not read any contemporary German writers, so I chose the story of the children with the dark eyes that set them apart from their cousins. What starts out as child’s play among the four children to piece together the puzzle of the missing pictures in the family photo album—and the beautiful opera singer with “Italian eyes”—leads to a hunt around their village for evidence, and onto a life-long obsession that estranges them as the narrative between fact and fiction twists when uncovering whether their grandmother was truly a famous opera singer and if their grandfather had really flown secret German air force missions in the Spanish Civil War. Their cruel step-grandmother prohibits any contact with their mysterious grandfather who might elucidate the suspicious hole they discover in their family history.

The unknown narrator begins:

  • “Sometimes I stand for a while spying through the peephole into the hall, even when I know I won’t see a single person. I stand at the peephole and wait. No, I’m not waiting, I’m just watching; the door is closed. I stood that way as a child, first on a stool, then on a box, finally on tiptoe. And I’m stand like that now. I hear breathing.”

A poet, Marcel Beyer’s prose could do nothing but reverberate as it lyrically paints what the children invent, since they cannot see the insides and outsides of the tragic love story uncovered in a mystery that span generations.

Once revealed, the plot was questionable in the inability of the characters to talk frankly to each other, which made the mystery hang precariously and solely on the estrangement of family. Yet, such is family: mysterious and inexplicable; the truth hiding in plain sight; the past continuing to seed strange fruit in in the present. It is an enthralling novel about accomplices and the co-conspirators we choose, and those we don’t.

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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