Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Detour by Andromeda Romano-Lax

The Detour
by Andromeda Romano-Lax

What an impressive, thought-provoking novel this is. Set in 1938 Germany and Italy, The Detour presents a man who must weigh his love against his duty, all while existing in the broader picture of pre-WWII. We know what is ahead, and this purgatorial state stirs up all sorts of questions about idealism, loss, connection, art, and the perils of authoritarian states. I hadn't heard of any Andromeda Romano-Lax's work before receiving this book, so this was a fantastic surprise.

Ernst Vogler is twenty-six and a great lover of classical art. Employed by the Third Reich's Sounderprojekt, he is sent to Rome to retrieve "The Discus Thrower" marble statue, as part of Germany's quest to own as much of the world's notable art as possible. He has three days to complete the job, and he is to be assisted by twin Italian brothers, Enzo and Cosimo. Though he is both curious and thrilled to behold this statue in person, his employer's growing power makes him uneasy. At one point, he recalls the words of his friend Gerhard, a man who was mysteriously relocated to the newly anointed prison-village, Dachau:

"The truth is something we savor — usually in private. If you are lucky, Herr Vogler, you'll have many private pleasures in your life which shall make up for some public inconveniences, such as saying things you don't necessarily believe, and purchasing the world's most valuable art for fools who neither deserve nor appreciate it."

The journey does not go as planned almost immediately. For one, he doesn't even get to witness the statue before it's been boxed up by government officials. Enzo and Cosimo seem to have their own side plans for the trip as well. Ernst waffles back and forth between indulging the brothers and fearing for his job.

And this was why, perhaps, the Italians were better off selling some of their national art. Because they too often thought: What's the difference? A few kilometers off the main road, a few hours off schedule, a few pieces of straw from the crate. Everything was flexible, everything emotional. Decay and disaster, one small step at a time. There was no hard reasoning: the packing material had been there for a reason, just as the schedule had been there for a reason. One more bump and the statue might shift, an outstretched marble finger might make contact with wood — and break. That finger, Cosimo, outlasted the rise and fall of civilizations, outlasted attacks by barbarian hordes. But it might not outlast your brother's desire to get under a woman's skirt on a moonless night.

Still, Ernst is going through his own emotional decay — the peeling away of layers from his history. He resists and resists, but cannot fully escape the change brewing within him. Old fears start to transform as he realizes that "Everything is political" and "How easy it is to start something. Too easy."

The writing in this is just... Well, I know I overuse the word "lovely," but that's what it is. Lovely. Full of love for the Italian surroundings, the people swept up in this crazy shift, and none of it comes across as heavy-handed, which might be something of a feat when discussing Nazi Germany. Romano-Lax has talked about how her Italian and German ancestry and her Greek name helped shape her interest in 1938 Europe and "the strange confluence at the time of influential and sometimes dangerous ideas about classical art, genetics, and politics." Hitler was a failed artist, we must remember, and though his presence looms over the book, he is mainly referred to only as Der Kunstsammler — "The Collector." This is a deliberate act on Romano-Lax's part, as naming the man did not have the same connotation in 1938 as it does in retrospect. Ernst tells his story in retrospect, but he wants to make clear that he was once young and unknowing of what was to come, despite how obvious it may have been when looking at the country from above.

With love comes pain, of course, and The Detour does not avoid it. Family, sacrifice and loneliness all play a role here, as well as questions of worth. How does a man succeed? And on this particular mission, what counts as success?

How could I say anything with authority? I could tell you what the German copy cost our government — five million lire. But could I tell you what the German copy was worth? Could I tell you whether it summed up everything that was best in the human form? Could I tell you whether it justified Der Kunstsammler's fanatical interest? Could I tell you whether a nation should have been escalating its acquisitions of fine art, rather than feeding its people, or finding some future for its youth beyond the trench, the munitions factory, or the museum?

I could not tell you, just as I could not tell you with authority how the heart might respond to the Discobolus's representation of the moment — not a moment in action, but a moment just before action, the moment just before the discus flies, when nothing has happened yet, when no one has been judged, and no one has succeeded or failed, won or lost. When everything remains possible.

It is difficult to see the scale of damage a political environment can cause when one is immersed in it. Tiny events snowball into small, small into large, large into catastrophic. People may either willfully ignore the signs, or remain blissfully ignorant when their needs are met at the most minimal level. "It's not so bad," one might say, or, "It could be worse." And yet, the damages keep mounting, unchecked. The Detour marks the moment when that atmosphere has begun to noticeably and irrecoverably shift.

Full disclosure: SOHO Press sent me this book. It was an advance reader copy, meaning that my pull quote could have changed slightly in the final edition. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read IV, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year. Though I'm taking things easier this year, I expect to surpass the 'Half Cannonball' distinction by the end of 2012.

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