Sunday, 22 March 2020

Alone in Berlin: "Red Pill" by Hari Kunzru

"Red Pill" by Hari Kunzru

A Review

At the start of the novel, the unnamed protagonist of Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill admits that he is going through a mid-life crisis. He is a moderately successful academic and writer, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife Rei, a human rights lawyer, and their three-year-old girl. Yet he feels unfulfilled and increasingly anxious about the state of the world.  This continuous state of anxiety places a burden on his marriage and saps his creativity.  Then the opportunity arises for him to spend a few months at the Deuter Centre, situated on the Wannsee in Berlin. This could be a perfect opportunity for him to reboot.  Rei actively encourages him to spend a few months away from home – provided he comes back ‘whole’.

The Deuter Centre, however, turns out to be quite different from what he expects.  The Centre is situated close to the villa where, at the “Wannsee Conference” Reinhard Heydrich  outlined his nefarious “final solution to the Jewish question”.  And although the ideals of the Deuter Centre, founded by an ex-Wehrmacht general, appear to be in direct opposition to Nazi-Fascist thought, the Centre’s “forced” communal approach and disturbing surveillance measures are not worlds away from the strictures of an extremist regime.

The narrator’s sense of oppression grows and turns into paranoia. Even as he works on a treatise on the “lyric I” in German Romantic literature, he increasingly questions not only his own self, but also the very basis of the value we give to human life and human dignity.  Things come to a head when the narrator makes the acquaintance of Anton, a film director who has gained notoriety for a violent cop series airing on German TV.   The narrator is horrified but not too surprised to discover that Anton is a leading figure of the alt-right.  Through him, the narrator discovers a subversive hostile culture that plans to dominate the world in increasingly unsubtle ways.  As the narrator’s sanity unravels, he believes himself to be in a personal battle with Anton and all he represents.  But is this all just paranoia or is truth closer to a nightmare than we are ready to admit?  There are certainly some autobiographical touches in the novel which suggest that the narrator’s fears are not that far-fetched.

On his arrival at Wannsee, the narrator, almost literally, stumbles upon the grave of Heinrich von Kleist.  Kleist, one of the exponents of the German Romantic movement, was hugely influenced by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant which he came across in 1801.  This shaped Kleist’s subsequent literary career, but also cast a tragic shadow upon his life.  In fact, Kleist interpreted Kant’s view as implying the impossibility of ever establishing an objective truth.  This led him into the dark alleys of an existential crisis from which he never fully recovered.  He would eventually die by his own hand, in a murder-suicide planned with Henriette Vogel.

Kleist looms large in the novel and, indeed, the vicissitudes of his life could be the key to understanding the predicament of the narrator.  Kleist’s unhappiness at his lot could, at one level, be deemed to be a pathological condition – the narrator himself, at one stage, floats a theory that Kleist suffered from PTSD. But there is no denying that Kleist’s crisis was also an existential one, born out of a legitimate philosophical concern.

The same could be said of the narrator’s crisis which is not only pathological but also an existential one.  More importantly, it is possibly a crisis which all men of goodwill should be going through at the moment. Faced with inequalities, injustice, human suffering, the refugee crisis, the trampling of fundamental freedoms and the resurgence of the far-right, can we really discount the narrator’s fears as mere paranoia?

The villa where the infamous Wannsee Conference was held

“Red Pill” invites discussion not just thanks to its subject matter, but also through its approach.  Although, at first glance, the narrative appears a relatively linear one, the novel becomes exhilaratingly complex thanks to its riot of cultural references.  It is haunted by the ghosts of German history and 19th century Romanticism, but its web of associations draws into it some other unlikely bedfellows. Thus “Red Pill” of the title is specifically alluded to only once in the text – but that is enough to link it to the choice between the “blue pill” of blissful ignorance and the “red pill” of truth mentioned in the movie “The Matrix”.   And besides that, there are more abstruse references to political philosophy and figures of the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment.   I would be comfortable describing this as a “novel of ideas”, but it could equally be considered a psychological thriller, an adventure story, a romance or, even, a dark comedy.  And, as a lover of the Gothic, I could not help also perceiving echoes of the German Romantic sub-genre of the “secret society novel”, variously referred to as the Bundesroman or the Geheimbundroman.  This reference is suggested by the narrator’s increasingly feverish research into the “dark web” and the far-right groups which haunt it – an aspect of the book which reminded me also of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and Numero Zero.          

Admittedly, the plethora of "meta-levels" sometimes make the novel seem unfocussed. In particular, I have in mind the segment of the book describing the experiences of Monika (the Deuter Centre’s cleaner) under the GDR. Taken on its own, it makes for a harrowing and moving read.  It also fits in well with the narrator’s concern about the “surveillance regime” adopted at the Centre.  In the context of the whole book, however, the need for it is not too clear.  Perhaps Kunzru’s idea is to show us that danger of extremism is not limited to the right end of the political spectrum.  But then again, the novel neither invites nor provides clear answers, and is so much the better for it.

Kindle Edition320 pages
Expected publication: September 3rd 2020 by Scribner

The painting of Kleist (by Anton Graff) on which the novel's psychedelic cover is based

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