Translated from the German by Anthea Bell
“I must have made a mistake, and now I am living the wrong life.”
The Austerlitz of this haunting story is Jacques Austerlitz, who our narrator meets by chance in a waiting room at Antwerp train station in Belgium. They strike up a conversation or rather, Austerlitz speaks and the narrator listens, about the history and architecture of the building. As it turns out, Austerlitz is an architectural historian and this meeting is the first of several, often random, over the course of many years. Each being of similar format, Austerlitz imparting his knowledge and the (unnamed) narrator listening and recallling this for the reader. This could all be quite dull if it wasn’t for the eloquent, almost poetic way that Austerlitz speaks, his vivid yet sensitive thoughts really are beautifully written.
Gradually we learn more Austerlitz’s desperately sad story – at the outbreak of WWII, at 4 1/2 years old, he is transported by train away from his homeland to an isolated, bleak Welsh town. Given a new name and brought up as the son of a devout minister and his introverted wife, in a cold, dark house where the windows are always kept shut, all memories and references to his past are wiped and it is not until years later at boarding school that he learns his real name.
It will be many more years before he can bring himself to take the painful journey to rediscover his past.
“It hasn’t been easy to make my way out of my own inhibitions”
This story is told as one long narrative and is written without chapters. It is also scattered with black and white photos of various topics that Austerlitz is describing and places he has been. I found these old, almost soot like photos quite eerie.
I was totally engrossed in the first half of this book where we gradually learn more about this dignified, yet terribly lonely man. I was slightly disappointed with the second part of the book. Considering the journey Austerlitz is making and the content of his discoveries, it didn’t have quite the impact I was expecting. I think I will be thinking about this book however for quite some time – overall it was very moving.