By Katharina Hacker
Translated by Helen Atkins
Reviewed by Jeff Waxman
At the outset, I didn’t particularly care for this book. Yet, as a work of fiction, The Have-Nots bears no great deficiencies and has, in fact, a certain charm to it. In spite of this, or, perhaps, because of it, I can’t love this book. Perhaps my heart is too small to embrace the multitude of characters, or perhaps my distaste for post-9/11 literature is too great. This is such a novel of our time. The Have-Nots is a not a book about people who are lacking, but people who have too much—too much pain, too many memories, too much angst and ambiguity. They feel too much and dwell too much in each other. What they have not is any real awareness of the poverty of their respective existences. My distaste for this book is an entirely personal reaction to a fairly good, maybe even great, novel.
It is a very German work. The Holocaust plays a sort of bizarre Jiminy Cricket role in post World War II German consciousness. It’s ever-present now, framing and informing German literature. In this novel, Hacker plays with a narrative clockwork that I first encountered in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. In the four—really many more than that—simultaneous stories, dozens of lives perform work on the others; each story acts as a cog, turning the others in a gloriously complex movement that anyone could appreciate. Like Anderson’s characters, Hacker’s characters are grotesque, spiritually and emotionally deformed and, for all of that, beautiful. Hacker hasn’t Anderson’s or Joyce’s ability to define individual characters, but her grasp of this intricate form is extraordinary. Perhaps I’m reaching too much into my own recent activities, but this book is like the television show Lost.
Seriously, I think it is. Bear with me.
The Have-Nots follows the interwoven stories of dozens of characters in two countries: Jakob and Isabelle, Jim and Mae, Dave and Sara, and Andras and Magda. The beauty of these stories is that each exists and continues without the reader’s attention. To begin to describe the interconnectedness of it all would either be futile or take an incredibly long time. In either case, I won’t. Central to the novel are Jakob and Isabelle, a German couple who move to England where Jakob is to take a position made vacant by the death of a colleague in the attack on the World Trade Center. Isabelle, his new wife, is an illustrator. These bourgeoisie are the most significant characters, yet the haziest—they’re constantly lost in the world around them, swallowed by a book that attempts to encapsulate so many different lives that those at the center are lost in the drama of those at the edges and their hopeless stories full of violence, crime, abuse, drugs, and just about every other misfortune these characters could quietly experience. Sound like any award-winning television show in particular? Yessir, it sounds like Lost.
Our characters occupy very different worlds and yet they exist side-by-side, largely anonymously, but in perfect symphony. The world—even just the Western World—has always seemed enormous, with nations separated by geography, but especially by language. Hacker collapses this too-large world and brings Germany and England and New York within painful millimeters of each other. Perhaps in literature in translation, in books like Ms. Hacker’s, we all have the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with cousins lost since Babel, with writers telling our stories in other languages. We were lost, but we’re now found through the shared emotion and shared events of novels like this one. In all of its beauty and complexity, Hacker’s book, which I still cannot love, has brought me to the realization that we’re all closer than I thought; uncomfortably close. Just like Lost.
This is also novel about class, but also about motion and interconnectedness and simultaneity and contrast. Nothing remains in stasis. Our characters occupy very different worlds and yet they exist side-by-side, largely anonymously, but in perfect symphony. This book’s triumph and its failure is in its unwavering pursuit of truth.
by Katharina Hacker
Translated from the German by Helen Atkins
341 pages, $14.95