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Me and Kaminski, By Daniel Kehlmann, trans. Carol Brown Janeway

A ghost in the gallery

When Measuring the World appeared in 2005, the prolific young Viennese writer Daniel Kehlmann not only seduced Europe's readers, but surprised them as well. Here, in a bonfire of the stereotypes, the German-language historical novel roared back to comic life with a crackle of jokes, satire, action and pathos, as Kehlmann set up a quickfire dialogue between the lives and minds of the explorer Humboldt and the scientist Gauss.

Me and Kaminski (which begins amid the lush pastures of the Alpine slopes) also promises, if not a slaughter, then a teasing of some sacred cows.

Sebastian Zollner, a brazen critic who lacks both talent and shame, sets out to invade the privacy of an elusive, near-blind painter, Manuel Kaminski, in pursuit of a beans-spilling biography that will make the dim hack's name. From the boorish Zollner's first trespass into the artist's highland hideaway, we expect a gleeful massacre of media presumptions and art-world pretensions. To a degree, Kehlmann delivers on both fronts, and at his usual breakneck pace. The novel barrels along like a top-of-the-range BMW on a deserted autobahn. And that is just the scenario that unfolds when Zollner quasi-kidnaps the secluded maestro, a pupil of Matisse. With some near-slapstick escapades, he drives the shy icon into excruciating encounters with the chic Berlin art scene, and a long-lost sweetheart on the Baltic coast.

Yet Me and Kaminski begins to grip only when it turns off from the obvious route. As a narrator, Zollner, who informs his quarry that "Being famous means having someone like me", is simply too crass to convince. The critic or biographer as leech and wrecker has a proud pedigree (from Larkin and Nabokov, among others). Still, Kehlmann ought to know that when some treacherous sleuth comes to stitch him up, the villain will look more plausible than this dolt.

Neither does the smart-art satire really fly. The collectors and experts come cut from far too broad a cloth. And the gallery debacle has sketch-show sauce, but sketch-show crudity as well. Where Kehlmann really deepens his palette is with the portrait of Kaminski himself. Predictably, the artist turns the tables on every patronising parasite with a keen wit, cutting tongue and a clearer perspective than the deluded Zollner.

By the time that the wistful master pays a call on his old flame at her seaside house - as the baffled pensioner waits for Who Wants to be a Millionaire? on TV - the comedy has a touching, tender precision. At length, Zollner grows up as a narrator and fades into the wallpaper. The gear-shifting subtlety of this finale leaves you wishing that Kehlmann could have dumped the knockabout farce back on the hard shoulder long before.

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