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Over the past year there have been a number of movies released that focused on the era of silent films and their impact on modern movies and moviemaking in general. The movie Hugo was nominated for an Academy Award stresses the importance of recovery and restoration of old films and then there was multiple Oscar winner, The Artist, which taught us all how much can be accomplished in cinema when you strip just about everything down right to the roots. As much as these films are about looking back on the kinder/gentler days of filmmaking, they are also about seeking to find out what are our traditions are made of and, by consequence, what we’re made of as well. What methods lead us to a brighter future and which ones should be left behind for good. Kino, by Jürgen Fauth, is a novel that takes on that same era of silent film and in genre-bending style, gives the reader new angles at which to look at that time in history and its characters.
Mina Koblitz (present day) returns home from another day watching her husband wrestle with the dengue fever that spoiled their honeymoon. She trips over a parcel. Is it a belated wedding gift? No, a print of Tulpendiebe (The Tulip Thief), the 1927 classic directed by her grandfather Klaus “Kino” Koblitz, never seen outside of Germany and long presumed, like all his other films, to have been destroyed by the Nazis. In Dan Brown-esque fashion, Mina is locked into the mystery of this print and decides to abandon her sick husband and jet across the pond to Berlin faster than you can say “Da Vinci Code.” She needs to find a film expert to determine whether or not the film print is authentic, if it really is by her grandfather, and how much it could be worth. To be fair to Mr. Fauth, this book is no Da Vinci Code, but it does have the stink of intrigue all over it and the main character is thrust into what could be an international conspiracy before the page count even hits double digits. Mina finds someone in Berlin who says that the print is authentic and priceless and, just like that, it gets stolen and what gets left behind is the diary of her late grandfather, “Kino” Koblitz. Kino means “cinema.” He gave himself his own nickname! Check out the big ego on this guy!
Movie directors have the advantage of being able to skip through time in their films as they please. Viewers don’t necessarily need to know how the characters got from point A to point B just as long as it makes some practical sense. Novelists don’t have the same luxury. When Fauth places two characters in a room together, they can’t come out until their motivation is known to the reader about where to head next. Maybe this is just a personal peeve of mine but novels like this always have little housekeeping issues that can potentially distract readers from the much more important story that is urgently awaiting them. For example: when Mina arrives in Berlin she realizes that she took her suitcase with her that she had not yet unpacked from the honeymoon that was cut short due to her husband’s dengue fever. The suitcase is full of tropical vacation clothes, not Berlin clothes. Now, are the readers going to have to go on a shopping trip with Mina? Will that shopping trip prove to be a valuable experience for both character and reader? Maybe it doesn’t really matter, but if it doesn’t then why put it in the novel to begin with? There are times when the pace of the novel is so quick that perhaps even the author couldn’t keep up with it. Once again, it may just be a personal irk of mine but it’s also what makes me admire novelists because they can have a lot of balls in the air but once they come down, they’re going to have to be ready to throw them back up again. It’s impressive when done well, or maybe you just don’t even notice it.
The true star of this novel Fauth’s ability to create an alternate history that weaves itself in and out of the concrete one that we’re all used to. Was Kino a real director? Do his films exist in some fashion or another out there somewhere? My favorite use of this alternate history was Kino’s diary. Was Kino a genius or madman? We get to find out what he thought of himself during his brief but meteoric rise to fame in Nazi Germany. The diary passages come to life and jump right off the page. Kino’s voice is urgent at times, and at others he is calm and reflective and gives a lucid perspective of the value of his art during a mad time in history.
Kino is an ambitious novel that is rapid in pace and never short on excitement. It’s about art and the art makers and the ones just hanging on for the ride. Aiming to answer the question of art’s role in society, the book looks just far back enough in history that it starts to catch a glimpse of a present day that hasn’t quite yet learned all the lessons of the past.