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Customer Review

53 of 63 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Use your illusions, October 11, 2002
This review is from: The Book of Illusions: A Novel (Hardcover)
So let's face it: Paul Auster's books are usually either very good or very bad, and readers either get him or they don't. The Book of Illusions is a winner, one of his darkest novels yet and very typical of his style. It reminded me most of Leviathan (which still I consider his best), and despite its pervasive darkness, it never approaches the oppressive agony of the almost unreadable In the Country of Last Things.
As he often does, Auster returns in this story to several motifs common to much of his fiction. Many key Auster characters are clearly intended as variations of himself -- sometimes he will give them his name -- and The Book of Illusions introduces another aspect of the author in its narrator, "David Zimmer." Like the narrator of Leviathan, Zimmer is a wordsmith intellectual whose fascination with a highly creative individual with a suspect past and a mysterious disappearance triggers the unraveling of the story. To preserve his fragile sanity, Zimmer scrutinizes the work and life of Hector Mann, a 1920s filmmaker whose twelve silent comedies strike Zimmer as perfectly crafted examples of the form. Meanwhile, he undertakes the monumental project of translating from French to English an epic 18th century autobiography 2,000 pages long (Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand's Memoires d'Outre-tombe). Zimmer sees his own hopelessness mirrored in the autobiographer's conception of his task as issuing dispatches as a dead man from beyond the tomb.
The translation, in its enormity and relentlessness, manifests other familiar Auster themes. I thought back to The Music of Chance, where the prisoners Nashe and Pozzi are charged with carefully constructing a two-thousand-foot wall from the stones of a disassembled castle. The drudgery of the labor was precisely what enabled Nashe to approach the task with his characteristic stoicism and see in it the prospect of liberation from the wheels of fate. Zimmer appears to approach his translation in the same way. Its schematic similarity to the wall-building crystallizes various questions on the nature of language, including some Auster ruminated on most thoroughly in City of Glass, his novella about the Tower of Babel. Is a translation like the wall -- a new creation built from the components of a master work -- or does it aim to reconstruct the original as closely as possible within the constraints imposed by the differences in their elemental parts?
I think most readers will find their understanding of past Auster novels enriched by this book. Others might find his recycling of past motifs, especially the potency of random chance, tiresome. But I think everyone will be struck by its most haunting moments and will remain in suspense until the story's climactic end. Whether Chateaubriand, Mann, or neither can shepherd Zimmer out of his nihilism and despair is the question that will keep readers interested as the plot bounces back and forth into present and past.
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Initial post: Mar 6, 2008 2:45:40 PM PST
prisrob says:
Marvelous review.
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