Deborah Levy’s new novel is about a scholar with striking cheekbones and a stellar CV, a preening Londoner who lands important research gigs and seldom goes to bed alone. He is, in his own words, “cultured, sophisticated (and) good-looking,” if not very modest. Just 28, he can’t imagine that his good fortune might one day expire. Is he due a measure of comeuppance? Of course, but this isn’t what interests Levy. Her storytelling ambitions are much more beguiling.
As “The Man Who Saw Everything” opens, it’s 1988 and Saul Adler, the title character, is headed to socialist East Germany. Preparing for his trip, he’s been in touch with his German translator Walter, whose sister Luna loves the Beatles. This gives the egocentric Saul an idea: He’ll have himself photographed in the crosswalk from the “Abbey Road” album cover and give the picture to Luna. But when Saul and his girlfriend Jennifer try to re-create the iconic image, he’s hit by a car. His injuries don’t seem serious, yet when he arrives in East Berlin, he’s limping. More worrying, he begins to see vivid snatches of what looks like the future.
Saul presses on, spending his days in government archives and his nights with Walter and Luna. He sleeps with both, but his pleasure is interrupted by strange visions. “Although I was sitting on a stone step in East Berlin,” he says, “I was receiving images from somewhere else.” Saul sees himself planting tomatoes “in the future soil of” England and gazing at a tree in Massachusetts. “Jennifer was there, too. Her hair had turned white. Someone else was there, but the image was blurred.”
Levy’s novel — it’s the British writer’s third to be longlisted for the Booker Prize — explores uncanny terrain but never leaves the real world. What begins as a straightforward yarn about a vain academic becomes a complex portrait of a man who begins to wonder about his own identity. By the middle of this ingeniously structured book, much of what we’ve inferred from the opening pages feels questionable, leaving the reader to decode the mystery behind Saul’s new mental state. Is he ill? Injured worse than he realizes? Saul’s sense of who he is has begun to change, but he has no idea why.
Not by accident does Levy place her characters in Soviet-era Berlin, the famous divided city. As her protagonist struggles with his confusing “double life,” her supporting characters lead similarly bifurcated existences. Outwardly respectful of the oppressive state, they’re rebellious in private. With the lightest of touches, Levy ponders big questions about family, love, citizenship and mortality. “The Man Who Saw Everything” succeeds as both a book of ideas and a philosophical thriller, a brainy, brisk and mesmerizing novel.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
The Man Who Saw Everything
By: Deborah Levy.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 200 pages, $26.