- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

By Daniel Kehlmann
Translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway
Pantheon, $21.95, 195 pages

In 1990, New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm caused a huge flap with her comment that “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” Lots and lots of people (most of them journalists) cried foul, but with the passing of the years there’s been a grudging reassessment of her premise, and many now feel there was, and is, a great deal of truth in what she said.

German writer Daniel Kehlmann may be almost 40 years younger than Ms. Malcolm, but he knows whereof she spoke. Sebastian Zollner, Kehlmann’s protagonist in “Me and Kaminski,” comes across as the living — well, OK, fictional — embodiment of morally indefensible journalism. Having stumbled into art criticism, Zollner believes that the best way to enhance his own stature is to diminish, and, should he be so fortunate, destroy, the reputation of an iconic figure.

“I’d known for quite a while that it was time for me to write a book. My career had begun well, but now it was stagnating. First I had thought that maybe I should do a polemic, an attack on a famous painter or movement; a total trashing of photorealism, maybe, or a defense of photorealism, but then photorealism was out of fashion. So why not write a biography?”

As his prey, to employ Janet Malcolm’s conceit, he chooses Manuel Kaminski, a legendary painter who, reportedly going blind, now lives as a recluse in a small, unnamed town “up in the mountains.” A tell-all biography of Kaminski, especially if there is dirt to be uncovered — and featured — in the book, could make Zollner’s reputation and remake or destroy Kaminski’s. Sebastian is ready, willing and quite able to be ” a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

Armed with an imaginary book contract and article assignments from several major newspapers, Sebastian Zollner writes Manuel Kaminski and announces himself as his biographer. Not bothering to wait for an answer — it could be no! — he takes a train up to the mountainous area where Kaminski lives, cared for and protected by his daughter, Miriam.

The book opens with Sebastian on the train, and it immediately becomes clear that he is not one of nature’s noblemen. He insults his fellow passengers almost gets in a punch-up with the conductor and tells a waitress in a coffee shop that it’s nice to be up in the country where there are no intellectuals. Not far into the tale, the reader learns that Sebastian’s girlfriend is kicking him out of her apartment, and the reader is immediately on her side.

When Zollner gets to Kaminski’s house, the artist doesn’t know what to make of him, and Miriam gives him a decidedly chilly reception, but that doesn’t stop him from taking off on a flight of fancy. “It might be nice to live here. I pictured it: Miriam was roughly fifteen years older than me, but I could live with that, she still looked good. He wasn’t going to be around much longer, we’d have the house, his money, and there’d certainly be a few remaining paintings.

I would live here, administer the estate, maybe set up a museum. I would finally have the time to write something really big, a fat book. … If possible, one of my father-in-law’s paintings on the cover.”

When Miriam tells Zollner he can’t start his interviews for two days because she has to be gone the next day, Sebastian sees his chance. He quickly bribes the housekeeper to leave right after Miriam does, and with the field now wide open, he moves into Kaminski’s house. Of course he peeks and peers and snoops into everything, from the proverbial medicine cabinet to the artist’s dusty studio, finally bearding the old lion in his own den.

Kaminski, however, is no toothless old lion. He may be almost blind, but he can see right through Sebastian Zollner. And he’s full of surprises. On hearing that the biographer manque has found an old lover whom Kaminski thought had died years ago, and that Zollner plans to fly up soon to interview her, Kaminski, who hasn’t been out of his house in years, announces they will visit her together — and they will go by car, Miriam’s.

At first, Zollner is dubious. “I rubbed my forehead. What had happened, hadn’t I just had everything under control? Somehow things had gotten away from me. And he was right: we’d be driving for two days, I’d never have been able to hope for so much time with him. I could ask him whatever I wanted. My book would become and remain a primary source, read by students and cited by art historians.

“‘It’s strange,’ [Kaminski] said. ‘To have you in my life. Strange and not pleasant.’

“‘You’re famous. That’s what you wanted. Being famous means having someone like me.’ I didn’t know why I said that.”

Up to this point in the novel, Kehlmann has displayed a pyrotechnic ability to skewer not just journalists, but also the entire art world, from artists and critics to gallery owners and patrons, sparing no one. But once he has Zollner and Kaminski on the road, he eases up on the wit and satire, and uses the trip to return to his story and tie up its threads neatly. In the process, he fleshes out both main characters, often in surprising ways. By the end, he has the reader thinking about such things as fame and desire and friendship and even love. That’s a lot to get out of what began as just a funny little book.

“Me and Kaminski” is Daniel Kehlmann’s second novel. His first, “Measuring the World,” sold 600,000 copies in Germany alone and 1.5 million overall since it came out in 2005. In a Financial Times interview in December, when asked what was the hardest thing to write about, Daniel Kehlmann replied, “The truth. True events or real people. Anything where you are not allowed to let your imagination flow freely.” He certainly didn’t have that problem with this wonderful book. In that same interview, he announced he has finished his third novel and that it will be out (in German) soon. I can’t wait for the translation and I hope he uses the same translator, Carol Brown Janeway.

I also hope someone would make a movie version of “Me and Kaminski.” There, I said it and I’m glad.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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