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Review: Kehlmann's 'Me and Kaminski' a madcap, touching tale

Dense, funny and surprisingly thoughtful, this short novel about a biographer in pursuit of a dotty artist reads like a movie begging to be made. Cast Jack Nicholson in the role of bleary-eyed, cranky Manuel Kaminski and watch the picture unfold.

Kicked out by his successful girlfriend and spurned by the literary establishment, thirtyish Sebastian Zollner ekes out a living by writing scornful reviews of work by successful writers.

His career is a disaster, but a biography of Kaminski will revive it: "My book would become and remain a primary source, read by students and cited by art historians."

The once-celebrated artist lives in seclusion in a mountaintop stronghold. His daughter Miriam is his protector — or his keeper. In spite of her grim insistence on monitoring every session, Zollner is determined to get the old man alone.

Zollner takes the expensive trip with high hopes, but at every step, something goes wrong. His subject doesn't exactly remember agreeing to the biography; in fact, he doesn't remember much of anything. Sources who knew Kaminski when he was famous don't agree on the details. Nothing works out for Zollner until Miriam turns her back for a minute, in which the journalist colludes with a housekeeper who babysits the old man. For a price, she agrees to leave him alone with Kaminski for a day.

Ransacking the old man's papers, Zollner unearths a letter from Kaminski's lost love Teresa, and what's more, he locates her. When he finds out, Kaminski comes to life.

Road trip! Zollner has misgivings, but the reunion scene will be a great way to end his unwritten book. The two set out on an adventure that's begging to be filmed, a mix of comic missteps and misunderstandings and surprise meetings. Zollner touches on art and aging, truth and illusion — and the stories we tell ourselves so we can keep going when the going's hard.

Kit Reed's new novel, "Enclave," is due in February.

Me and Kaminski

By Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway

Pantheon, 191 pages, $21.95

Review: Kehlmann's 'Me and Kaminski' a madcap, touching tale 01/10/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 9:31am]
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