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When truth becomes fiction - 'Dear Mr. M'

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Complex novel explores ramifications of fictionalization

We've all read our share of tales that are inspired by true stories. It's not surprising one of the oldest chestnuts in the literary realm is that writers should write what they know. So of course, they're going to mine their own experiences for nuggets and gems to place on the page.

But what if that writer mined someone else's experience? What if it was YOUR experience layered over with a few changed details and a thin veneer of fictionalization, but indisputably yours?

That notion is at the heart of Herman Koch's new book 'Dear Mr. M' (Hogarth, $26). Koch the Dutch author behind works such as 'The Dinner' and 'Summer House with Swimming Pool' brings forth a layered meta-commentary on the nature of literature. In many ways, it's a book about a book. But it is the manner in which that book (and the story it tells) impacts those to whom it is most intimately connected.

M used to be one of the most celebrated writers of his time. While much of his work concerned the tragedies of war, his most resounding success was a suspense novel based on a real-life disappearance. It was the tale of a history teacher who vanished one winter just after a brief and torrid affair with one of his students came to an end; he was never found. When M turned that story into a noel, it became a massive bestseller, the book that served as his entry point onto the international literary stage.

Many years have passed since then; M's star has long since faded, though he still has a certain degree of worn-out cachet. However, there is at least one M-obsessed reader out there his downstairs neighbor, an odd, shy man who nevertheless is in near-constant observance of M and his wife.

The only question is why?

'Dear Mr. M' is a broad, sprawling work. It unfolds at a varied pace, with each chapter leaping from viewpoint to viewpoint. We spend time with the neighbor and with Mr. M himself; we meet the ill-fated teacher, the lovely young lady with whom he involved himself and her new, more age-appropriate beau. The one thing that binds these myriad threads together is the book a book about a sordid, salacious mystery that is only understood piecemeal even by those swept up in it.

Of course, Herman Koch is not one to make things simple or predictable the truth behind the story is so much deeper and more complex than you'd likely expect.

Koch's writing deftly weaves together stark prose and dark comedy a combination that is often a hallmark of literature from his part of the world. But while the writing has sharp edges and the wit has bite, the overall narrative is not nearly so clean. Instead, it ambles and bounds from point to point and perspective to perspective. The juxtaposition results in wonderfully engaging reading, packed with rich characterizations, beautifully-rendered backgrounds and a constant sense of excited anticipation.

'Dear Mr. M' is filled with intricate knots, people and places and ideas bound together in unexpected ways. Some of these ties are overt, but others are so gossamer-subtle as to be almost invisibleright up until Koch chooses to cut the cord.

What we have here is a clever, cutting work that matches up beautifully with Koch's best. He's an exceptional writer, one whose talents need no qualification. Readers in search of thoughtful, complex storytelling need look no farther than 'Dear Mr. M.'

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:37


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