The nameless narrator is in his 30s and is writing from Hungary.
He reminisces about the
last place he rented in Berlin, found for him by his friend Thea, an actress
to the successful and much older travel writer Arno.
The narrator, a writer of short
stories, is jealous of Arno's success. In fact, the narrator likes to
think that Arno is allowed by the communist party of East Germany to roam
the world only because he is secretely helping the government.
The narrator has a homosexual relationship with Melchior, a poet.
The narrator remembers the flat that he rented as a place of loneliness
The narrator suspected that
his own landlady, Mrs Kuhnert, spied on him on behalf of Thea.
This was after the pro-democracy revolts in Hungary.
He is writing this story when Melchior has already left Berlin (for the West),
and so has he (not for the West).
Melchior left Berlin before him. He was left alone, and the narrator left
right after him before the police could arrest him (we are not told why Melchior
left nor why the police would arrest the narrator).
The narrative shifts to the time when the narrator (who is presumably someone
else now) was in a tourist resort
(Heiligendamm) with his parents.
He is at the same tourist resort 20 years later, now a 30-years old
man. He felt anger towards his father, whom he considered depraved.
He has a girlfriend, Helene, and wants to escape from her.
His recollections shift to when he was in love with a boy named Krisztian,
jealous of him like a lover usually is.
Then we are back in the rented room. A telegram arrives and his landlady
is hysterical about finding out what happened. Mrs Kuhnert is in love with him,
and he cannot stand her anymore. He decides to move out.
The novel now turns into a different novel. The protagonist, Thomas, lives
in Hubner's house and his fiance Helene visits him. He is a little afraid of
his best friend and now worst enemy Claus, who swore to kill him. He tells
Helene that he is madly in love with her. Helene is only 19-years old.
We also learn that Thomas is the son of a murderer.
The narrator's memory shifts back again, to when he sexually molested his mentally retarded
sister while his mother was on her dying bed. A stranger appeared one day
and he didn't recognize his own father, returning after five years in jail.
Again he moves forward by 20 years when, as an adult revisiting the
in a suicidal mood, he
fainted and returned to the hotel in the middle of the night, bruised and
When he told Mrs Kuhnert, on the evening of the telegram, that he was going to disappear, he meant "suicide",
not "moving out".
Thea rehearsing a theatrical drama staged by director Langerhans, rehearsals
also attended by Mrs Kuhnert, who was in charge of updating the script.
The memory shifts back to a walk at the tourist resort when he was a child.
He could sense how much his parents detested each other.
One day his father's friend Peter Frick arrived, a politician who had an
affair with an actress. He arrived with a woman,
Nora Wohlgast, who had famously lost her fiance in the war
and vowed to mourn him for the rest of her life. However,
she was having a relationship with his father, and one night his mother
caught them in bed.
Back to the summer of his childhood when he was obsessed with Krisztian:
he was also in love with an ugly girl, the daughter of the school's
janitor, Livia, on the day of Stalin's funeral,
while he toyed with the idea of killing Krisztian.
He surprised Krisztian, Krisztian's best friend Prem, Kalman and others
meeting in the school's restrooms (to criticize Stalin?),
and was physically threatened by them. He had sex with the boy Kalman.
At the same time that he experimented with Livia and her friend Maja,
the daughter of a police official, he was repelled by the sexual relationship
between his parents, and found his father in bed with the maid.
He tortured psychologically the girls in a way reminiscent of how he had
tortured physically his sister.
Thea the consummate actress, rejected by Melchior the young poet, flirts with the narrator
in front of Mrs Kuhnert, causing the latter to become jealous of her.
Kuhnert tells the narrator that Thea is madly in love with Melchior, despite being 20 years older and despite knowing that he is gay.
The novel shifts to a different story, whose
protagonist is renting a room in Berlin from a Mrs Hubner, and spies
on a mother and daughter from his fifth-floor window, a weekly
activity that gives him a hard-on.
(Now begins a mammoth 130-pages chapter).
As a young man in Hungary,
the narrator was involved in a complicated love triangle (or quadrangle).
He was in bed with Maja, but in love with Livia. He eavesdropped on Maja and
Szidonia and heard them talk about their respective love affairs. Maja talked
about being stalked by a
conductor just released from jail (who had been convicted for pretending to
have committed a crime that he didn't commit, all to save a woman who was
being harassed by an evil man), and this man's fight with Szidonia's friend
Pisti, a guard. The narrator felt that Maja was morbidly attracted to Szidonia
and was turned on by knowing that he had sex with Szidonia too. Maja confessed
that she had sex with Kalman, who was crazy about her the way the narrator
was crazy about Livia. All the time the narrator was thinking of Livia and of
Krisztian, his two real loves, who were in a relationship with each other.
(This part feels like a Freudian stream of consciousness).
Maja and the narrator lived in a privileged neighborhood because their
parents were considered very devoted to the regime.
Maja was a Jewish girl who lost her father to the concentration camps.
The narrator was hostile to his sister because of her devotion to their
Kalman was considered a "class alien" because his family had owned property
before the communist revolution. His father ran a bakery.
Krisztian used to bully Kalman.
Krisztian lost his father to the war.
Prem's father was a fascist.
Hedi lived with an adoptive father because her mother didn't want her to
interfere with her relationship with her lover.
One day Hedi stripped in front of the narrator and told him that, if she
could not have Krisztian, whom she had dated before,
she would steal the narrator from Livia.
Maja thought that the narrator was truly in love only with Hedi.
However, Hedi's machinations did not make Maja jealous.
The narrator, secretely, wanted to be a girl.
The boys fought each other and one day they had even
attacked the girls: Livia, Maja and Hedi.
But now Maja and the narrator were lovers, and they shared the belies
that their fathers were Western spies. Thus they searched for proofs and ended up
reading romantic letters that revealed how the narrator's parents had
cheated on each other, his mother with a man called Janos and his father with a woman called Maria;
Maja's father with a woman called Olga.
There was another quadrangle of sorts that dated back to when the narrator
the narrator's father slept with Maria who was in a relationship with Janos.
Maja's father was chief of military counter-intelligence and the narrator's
father was a state prosecutor.
One day the narrator surprised his terminally ill mother precisely with this Janos,
and then he remembered that Janos had been jailed five years earlier for
treason. Janos blamed the narrator's father, but the father denied it.
The narrator finally realized that Janos was his biological father.
The two men had worked together on some underground mission against the
fascists and Janos believed that now his old comrade had denounced him
as a traitor of the communist regime.
Then one day, fed up with his parents, the narrator decided to leave town
and told only Livia. Later Livia alerted her parents and the police went out
looking for him. When they found him and returned him home, he found out
that his mother had just been taken to the hospital where she had died.
(This is a mammoth 130 pages chapter).
In Berlin, six years after the 1968 anti-communist uprising in Prague,
the narrator, arrived two months earlier, was living with his German lover Melchior in a fifth-floor apartment, while Thea
was playing in the theater and flirting too with Melchior, and Melchior
was also having a relationship with a Frenchman, Pierre, for whom 1968
was the year of the pro-communist student riots in France.
Melchior, the biological son of
a French father, a musician, who was killed by the Germans, but
adopted by a German father, whom he had never met,
was undergoind an identity crisis.
Melchior told the tragic story of lieutenant Katte, then had sex with the
narrator. Then he broke down into tears.
The narrator, however, was cheating on Melchior with Thea, which made
Mrs Kuhnert even more jealous (Kuhnert had lived with Thea for 20 years and
emphasized that she was actually younger than Thea).
He burned his notes on the eve of his departure from Berlin.
Part II ends with a chapter of the novel about Thomas Thoenissen. On
his 30th birthday he arrives to a luxury hotel and spa in Heiligendamm,
after having parted from his fiance Helene, and has
dinner with aristocrats during which it is announced that a count has died.
The story of Thomas clearly takes place a few generations earlier, when
Hungary was still under Austria and the country was ruled a king, not by
a communist regime. We learn that Thomas lives alone with his maid Hilde.
Part III resumes the memories of the unnamed narrator's childhood, told to
Melchior in 1972 while the two are walking towards Thea's theater..
The narrator's father put his little sister into a mental hospital and their grandmother
stopped talking. At the end of 1956 they buried his father, after an
Earlier that year a badly aged Hedi, the Jewish blonde, had come to tell him that her family
was leaving the country. Her mother's lover had disappeared.
By then Kalan was dead, and the narrator was worried about
Krisztian once Hedi fled.
(This chapter starts in 1972, then it starts a story of the end of 1956,
then a story of fall 1956, then finally focuses on the uprising of mid 1956
that explains what happened later in the year).
Anarchy was spreading in Hungary in mid 1956. and some of his friends were
joining the uprising in the streets.
Krisztian, who had joined a military academy, got home because the cadets
were leaving the barracks.
The communists were being vilified.
The narrator's father was a good communist and thought that the revolution
was a counter-revolution. Suspended from his position, he was hiding in Janos' place and showed up wearing Janos' clothes. He gathered friends of the communist
party and tried to launch a movement to restore order in the country.
The narrator watched this event thinking that his father had gone mad after
the death of his wife, the narrator's wife.
The narrator and Kalman were in the crowd that marched towards the parliament,
and Kalman was shot dead. The narrator blamed his father for the murder.
The narrator's father committed suicide two months later.
All of this the narrator told Melchior for the first time in 1972 as they
were walking in the street.
The narrator saw Livia two years later: she was pregnant and learning a new
trade. At the same time Janos wrote him a letter from South America.
Thea was obsessed with Melchior, while the narrator was Melchior's lover and
also attracted to Thea. The narrator now feels that the two men were using
the older Thea as a way to increase their mutual attraction.
All of this was going on while Melchior's French friend was organizing
Melchior's escape to the West. In the middle of lengthy Freudian analyses of
their sexual urges, we learn that the narrator's sister eventually died in
the mental hospital, and that Melchior's real father was the French one.
The narrator tells Thea a memory that Melchior confided to him (so we are
reading the memory of a memory):
Melchior had been sexually abused and traumatized as a child by
his violin teacher while a little girl named Marion was in love with him.
Later that teacher had killed himself. After this story the narrator and Thea kissed passionately under the window of Melchior's fifth-floor apartment, a
prelude to the sex that happened a few days later.
The novel within the novel continues with Thomas about to leave
Heiligendamm for Berlin after two months of erotic orgies with
Stollberg's husband and the valet Hans.
A Swedish gentleman is murdered by Hans right after the announcement of the
death of the aristocrat. The police interrogates Thomas, who could be indicted
for perverse sexual acts and corrupting a minor, if not for suspicions of
involvement in the murder itself. He wants to deny any attraction to the woman
and tells the detective that the woman has a deformity in both hands, the
reason why she always wears glove, but the detective replies that some men
are attracted to deformities. The police also knows that Thomas was a member
of anarchist clubs for many years. Right at that moment he is served a letter
from Helene, that announces she is pregnant and wants to keep his baby,
Thomas is reminded of his father, who not only cheated on his wife, but
eventually raped, killed and mutilated a young girl, and then committed
suicide jumping under a train. It is the eve of his departure for Berlin.
Thomas is ashamed that he has not been able to write a single sentence of
his planned novel, while the murdered man, suffering from a lung disease,
had produce a stunning artistic photograph.
Thomas, in a suicidal mood, is determined to abandon Helene.
He reminisces about Hilde, the maid who was his first sexual partner.
There is another woman in his life but he refuses to name her.
The chapter ends with a sentence about Thomas' departure from Berlin, and that
same sentence begins the next chapter, written by Krisztian: that sentence is
the last sentence that the unnamed narrator wrote before dying. The unnamed
narrator committed suicide three years earlier, leaving behind the 800-page
manuscript that we have read so far.
Krisztian is a 37-years-old economist, who has worked all his life for
foreign-trade companies. Now it is his turn to tell us his memories,
and his version of the facts.
We learn that his father was probably killed by the Russians when Hungary
was fighting alongside Hitler's Germany.
Krisztian met the narrator in Moscow and then five years later at the airport
of their capital, clearly returning home, but with no place to stay and
more depressed than ever. Krisztian took him to the village where his aunts
lived and left him with them. He seemed to get better, spending all his time
on his writing and taking solitary walks. The narrator lived there for three
years working relentlessly on his manuscript. The village began to gossip,
especially after he befriended a kid who had tried to kill himself.
One day he was found dead: three motorcycles had run over his body.
Apparently, he had become a religious person just before dying. And there
is a chance that the motorcyclists were not drunk but truly intended to kill
him because the village suspected perverted sex between him and the suicidal
kid. Krisztian is reading the narrator's notes and writing this chapter
more than one year after the murder.
Krisztian then appends one last fragment written by the narrator.
In this fragment the narrator recounts the last days in Berlin with Melchior.
Melchior was so nervous that one night he lost his temper and hit the narrator.
The narrator had only ten days left before going back home, and was upset
with Melchior about his continuous lies.
Melchior went to Thea's premiere. The narrator went to see Maria, determined
to find out who his real father was.
This narrative mixes with the narrative of Thomas
the murder of his friend
and the arrest of his lover the valet. Thomas, expelled from the country
but not indicted of the crime, confesses to us that he is the real murderer.
Back to the visit to Maria, this took place five years after the unnamed
narrator's mother had died. Maria now tells the story of her relationship
with his father. He was madly in love with her, and she let him use her body,
but she was in love with Janos, who would soon be dispateched out to an
embassy abroad. The narrator's father killed himself on Christmas Day of
1956 (after the failed revolution).
There is a reference to a man who was arrested in 1949, but it is not clear who.
Maria, who used to be in charge of the secret locations used by the secret
police to torture and interrogate suspects, tells him how she was arrested by
that very secret police (for which the narrator's father also worked).
Ironically, she was taken to some of those locations and she was tortured,
but she refused to sign the confession despite the fact that both his father
and Janos had already signed it.
Maria keeps talking, and the narrator simply leaves her apartment.
He meets Melchior again, who has just returned from the performance.
Melchior now tells him why he has been so hysterical the whole day:
he was waiting for a phone call. He has arranged for his escape to West
Berlin inside a casket. We are back in the Kuhlnert apartment and the narrator
is reading the telegram: it is from Melchior announcing that everything
The unnamed narrator writes that the following day he left for
Heiligendamm (and therefore started the novel about Thomas?).
Two years after the escape Melchior finally wrote: he was married, had a girl,
and was working as a wine trader.