Irish author Hugo Hamilton’s new novel The Pages uses an old literary convention in which an inanimate object is the narrator of the work in which it appears. It’s not an easy device to pull off, many critics feel, and it has a certain air of preciosity about it. Hence its rarity. In The Pages, the narrator is a book — a copy of Rebellion (Die Rebellion), a 1924 novel by the Austrian Jewish journalist and novelist Joseph Roth. Hamilton manages to make this conceit believable and affecting, although not without raising some questions about the larger significance of it all.
As The Pages opens, the book is in the handbag of Lena Knecht, an American artist with roots in Germany. Originally the possession of a German Jewish literature professor in 1930s Berlin, this copy of Roth’s book was rescued by Lena’s grandfather from destruction at the first major book-burning conducted by the Nazi regime, and later passed down to Lena by her father. Lena is on her way to Germany to unravel a mystery contained in the book: a hand-drawn map on the flyleaf with no identifying information. Lena is intrigued by the map and feels compelled to uncover its significance.
Lena’s journey brings her into the orbit of two refugees from the wars in Chechnya raised by foster parents in Germany, and her interaction with them comprises the main plot. There are also subsidiary plotlines: Roth’s story of a wounded World War I veteran’s spiraling into despair and rebellion; the rescue of Rebellion from the book-burning; and the tragic story of Roth’s marriage and his subsequent decline. The Pages also addresses Lena’s marriage and her German host’s struggle with her son’s drug addiction. Hamilton displays great skill in weaving all these strands together without overwhelming the reader.
Hamilton’s book raises many intriguing issues, including artistic responsibility and affiliation, the plight of refugees, and the role of fate and chance in life. One major question highlighted by the novel’s conceit is what is gained by having a book as narrator. The novel could well be told by a traditional third-person omniscient narrator with Rebellion as narrative motif connecting the various threads. On the other hand, the idea that books are living and sentient beings is an appealing one. The book has a soul, a point of view, and a rather charming voice.
Using the book-narrator Hamilton raises a larger theme: the nature of art. Many artists and critics believe that art is self-referential; its motifs and methods depend on other art as much as on depicting “reality.” Others have likened the ways in which artists borrow from each other to theft. It is significant that Lena is described as an artistic thief. Her work is made up of borrowed elements, found objects, and original conceptions. Likewise, Hamilton composes his book out of disparate artistic elements, and by doing so engages in dialogue with his sources.
This raises the more important question of why Hamilton chose Roth as author and Rebellion specifically as a narrator. Here the answer is not as clear-cut. Roth’s novel and biography provide some of the thematic grounding, but one wonders whether Hamilton’s book could stand without this as its themes are almost universal literary ones. Roth’s tumultuous life and marriage to a mentally unstable woman also echo in the main plot, but Hamilton runs the risk of overshadowing his own story by drawing the parallel.
These reservations notwithstanding, the novel is moving, and Hamilton has done readers a favor by bringing Roth and his life and work to a contemporary audience.