Stefan Vogel and his wife Inge, having emigrated from East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, live in upstate New York. At a society gathering in the city, Stefan is approached by a woman who throws a glass of red wine in his face. His shock is accompanied by a familiar sensation of déjà vu - a sense that any harm done to him has already been done. This sense recurs several times during this novel, which takes the form of a memoir as Stefan struggles to understand why the assault took place.
The title warns us to expect a disingenuous narrator. We are told a great deal in the first pages of diary entries, but we don't realise it. This is a novel to be read twice. Some pleasures, such as the compelling prose, will be savoured with as much relish on a second reading, while the tension will be replaced by an appreciation of James Lasdun's cunning.
Even before the memoir, we read of Stefan's "tendency to expect the worst". He sees himself as a "catabolist" (having to do with the breaking down of organic matter), with a "gravitation towards autumnal things" that are "shaped by their relationship with the extinction towards which they are travelling".
There follows a series of episodes from his childhood in 1970s East Berlin. His diplomat father returns from New York with shiny souvenirs that represent the allure of the West. A move to America looks likely before his father slips up in delicate negotiations and is demoted, whereupon Stefan's mother adopts a new role as unofficial patron of state-approved arts. Stefan finds himself assigned the role of "poet-intellectual" and discovers a talent for invention, becoming a convincing liar. The world becomes divided into those who can see through his deception and those who lack the guile.
Lasdun is an accomplished short-story writer, and the chapters covering Stefan's adolescence, although they are superbly controlled, threaten to drift free of the novel's mooring. But Lasdun makes up for it as the promised "political thriller" element moves closer to the foreground.
For all the richly evoked atmosphere of Communist paranoia among the boho types, what remains most compelling is the trail of sly clues to understanding Stefan's inner life, his attachment to autumn, his facility for fabrication and fondness for trees - and his (and Lasdun's) masterful control of their tissues of lies.
Nicholas Royle's 'Antwerp' is published by Serpent's TailReuse content