Engaging Tale Of A Chilling Place In Time
Sunday Business Post, 25th January 2009
Simon Mawer ‘s powerful and elegiac new novel centres on mankind’s simple but vital need for a place to call home.On their honeymoon in Venice in 1929, the cultured, wealthy couple Viktor and Liesel Landauer meet a maverick architect called Rainer von Abt, who has an ambitious vision to build a rectangular house of glass.
Sharing his modernist viewpoint, the Landauers commission von Abt to create the work on their behalf. The finished house, situated in a Czech city called Mesto (or ‘Place’), is the realisation of a series of elaborate design specifications: a rectilinear structure of glass, concrete and steel, featuring a wall of golden onyx which reflects sunlight in the most colourful way.
On seeing von Abt’s rudimentary sketches, Viktor initially describes the building as ‘cold’ – and although von Abt rebuts his theory, coldness, in all its forms, creeps in and permeates the novel’s narrative. Despite the Landauers’ warmth and optimism, their relationship is undercut by unspoken needs and desires.
When Liesel becomes a mother, Viktor becomes enchanted and consumed by a young woman, Kata, who he meets on one of his frequent business trips to Vienna. Eventually, as Vienna falls to the Nazis, Kata flees to the Landauer house.
Meanwhile, the book’s emerging heroine comes in the form of Liesel’s sexually liberated friend, Hana Hanakova, whose enduring passion and foresight become inextricably linked with the house’s future.
When war breaks out, Viktor, who is Jewish, is forced to flee Mesto, taking Liesel and his household to America, which also becomes home to the architect von Abt. Nevertheless, the house continues to bear witness to a period of drastic change, lived through a succession of inhabitants.
Initially it becomes a ‘biometric centre’ dedicated to separating the ‘master race’ from the underclass, and to the discovery of cures to ‘Jew diseases’.
Later, it is presided over by the Landauers’ gruff chauffeur, Lanik, who shelters there from the persistent wartime shelling with his sister, until the Russians liberate Mesto and the house itself.
Thereafter, it becomes a home for sick children under the rule oft he Czech Communist Party, and also home to the dancer Zdenka for a period, before the Party, represented by the newly-ambitious Lanik, decrees that the house should become a tourist attraction.
Throughout these episodes – and despite all the changes – the Glass Room remains ‘‘a place of balance and reason, an ageless place held in a rectilinear frame that handles light like a substance and volume like a tangible material and denies the very existence of time”.
The elderly and blind Liesel returns decades later to the house to tie up the tale’s disparate elements. Like Liesel, all of those who become involved with the house feel its strange magnetism.
Mawer’s poetic and masterful prose is flawless from beginning to end. Having based ‘Der Glasraum’ on a nameless but existing building, with all its lives, desires, tragedies and triumphs, the reader is as ensnared as the various inhabitants by its unique beauty and organic tangibility.
Moreover, the survival of this modernist architectural masterpiece offers a timely glimpse, albeit with an ice cold shiver, of hope in terrifyingly turbulent times.