This Man Booker short-listed story plays itself out largely within the confines of a special room in a special house. SHEILA KUMAR
The Glass Room, Simon Mawer, Hachette, Rs 550
This is Czechoslovakia in the Thirties. There is a man, a woman, a marriage and a beautiful house built in the Modernist style. At first read, the book will seem uberfulle of lyrical sentences. However, a closer look will show that throughout, the author holds himself in rein, stopping just this side of letting his prose soar. Maybe a story such as this demands fluidity without excess.
The Glass Room has two stories inextricably woven into one strand; the Landauer family's fortunes, personal and professional, seem to run on a parallel, oftentimes enmeshed track with that of their incredible house of glass, chrome and steel. Glass room, glass space, a glass house to dream one's dreams in... the symbolism is unmistakable. A new kind of house in a new kind of Czechoslovakia which is neither German nor Slav but ready to create its own destiny. Viktor and Liesel Landauer are a Jew-gentile couple and Herr Hitler and his Nazis are almost at the doorstep of Mesto where the architect Rainer von Abt has built the glass house for them. So Viktor must and does flee, taking his extended family (wife, children, mistress and mistress's daughter) first to Switzerland and then to seek their fortunes in the new world of America. Exiles forever dreaming of der glasraum, that parlour in that glass house.
Work of art
The glass room. It is an amazing room, filled with light coming through plate glass windows, and done up in soft, monochromatic white, with an onyx wall that is seamed with amber and honey-coloured lines. When the wall catches the light of the setting sun, the room becomes infused with pure magic, gleaming almost in defiance of all the horrors happening without. At times, the room is a barrier between reality and fiction.
The author has said the whole point of a life is in the living of it, rather than the dying, and this comes through the book: humans survive most of what is thrown at them and of course, the glass room stands firm, a crystalline sanctuary. History marches through the room, around it, affecting it but peripherally; the room, the house, you see, is beauty made manifest, a place refulgent with possibilities.
The house moves from Czech hand to Nazi hand to Soviet hand and finally, comes back to the Czech state. The place, once the venue of soirées and elegant dinner parties, becomes a lab for Nazi scientists to conduct their horrific experiments to prove that Jews are an inferior race. After the fall of the Third Reich, it becomes a physiotherapy centre of a government hospital. The grounds get bombed. It takes on the look of a sports pavilion. Years on, another government decides it has to be turned into a museum and the search for the original family starts. The wheel comes full circle.
The backdrop is the grand theatre of war with the smaller yet no less disturbing theatre of emotions playing out in the foreground, inside that shining room, of course. A quiet reflective tone informs the narrative; the author is not to be rushed. The characters that come and go are all well etched, their advances and retreats delineated in detail.
The contrast is evocative: the people are in constant motion, as are a virtual assault of events but the glass house stands still, the repository of hopes, dreams, desires and desolation. People meet, socialise, talk politics (“Germany is a chimera of a nation, it doesn't know if it's lion, goat or serpent”), agonise, exult, dance, cry, hurt and betray each other, tells secrets, make love, get ambushed by memory, part, reunite, defy time, all in the glass room.
The house in the book is reportedly based on the Villa Tugendhat designed by Mies Van Der Rohe at Brno, also in the Czech Republic, way back in 1930. A couple of coincidences in the book: once, when Viktor's mistress just happens to land up in the glass room with a bunch of war refugees, another when Viktor's daughter Ottilie meets her childhood playmate Marika at the end, seemed contrived to this reviewer.
However, The Glass Room is an absorbing read, even an enriching one. Mower, an Englishman living in Italy, does a masterly job of speaking in German and Czech voices and with much credibility, at that.
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