F

A Novel

By Daniel Kehlmann

Translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway

Pantheon. 272 pp. $25.95

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Reviewed by Harold Brubaker

One of the fun things about reading F, German writer Daniel Kehlmann's fantastic new novel, is musing about what the letter stands for.

F could stand for family, fate, fiction, fraud, forgery, or all of them and more.

Kehlmann, among the best-selling German-language novelists writing today, tells the story of three brothers - with careers in religion, art, and finance - who are impostors, con-men, and swindlers.

The novel, in an excellent translation by Carol Brown Janeway, opens with the brothers as adolescents visiting a hypnotist with their father, a writer who dips in and out of their lives. It includes a fateful mix-up of brothers by a secretary, with a murder as a consequence, and ends with a Catholic Mass.

In three long chapters, Kehlmann, 39, narrates the brothers' lives, ending each on a blistering hot day in August 2008, as the financial crisis, unleashed when the fiction of ever-rising house prices unraveled, was peaking.

The oldest brother, Martin, is a gluttonous priest (even unable to resist eating candy bars while hearing confessions) who doesn't believe in God, but is an expert at solving Rubik's Cube.

His younger half-brothers are twins, Eric and Ivan.

Eric, an investment advisor to the super-rich, is a hilarious mock-up of a Ponzi schemer. He becomes convinced that God sent the financial crisis to save him from jail. Nearly penniless, he goes to live with Martin, until he realizes that the rectory "was not the place for a pious human being of any stripe."

Ivan, a skillful painter, realizes he is a mediocre artist. As a joke on the art world, he starts painting in the style of his lover, Heinrich Eulenboeck, who is known for innocuous country scenes. Ivan twists them with images of whimsical modern sculpture, creating a huge art world success.

But Ivan, alone among the brothers, has found real satisfaction.

He wishes he could paint anonymously, as craftsmen did in the Middle Ages. "But painting in the name of someone else is a possibility; it works. And what amazes me all over again every day is: it makes me happy."

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