The Lost Pages
Vogel award winner Marija Peričić’s titular lost pages are a fictionalised memoir by Max Brod – a successful author in his day, but best remembered as Franz Kafka’s friend, mentor and champion. It was Brod who refused Kafka’s dying wish that his unpublished work be destroyed, and is thus responsible for preserving Kafka’s legacy and enduring literary gifts to the world. In Brod’s reckoning, if Kafka had actually wanted his work destroyed, he would have appointed another executor of his estate.
This duplicity is the conceit on which this revisionist historical novel turns. Against a backdrop of Prague in 1908, Peričić reimagines the storied relationship between Kafka and his mentor as a bitter literary rivalry. Here, Kafka is rendered as a precocious rising star and Brod an anxious figure who begins to unravel with the realisation that his protégé’s great talent will eclipse his own.
Brod chronicles his growing obsession with the younger writer as he begins to recognise himself in Kafka’s famously unhappy, unhinged and alienated characters. He responds with increasingly desperate attempts to sabotage his rival’s career and destroy his writing. Escalating farce bleeds into psychological thriller as Brod’s sanity erodes and he finds himself trapped in layers of angst and surreal ambiguity that pay tribute to Kafka’s legacy.
Peričić’s exploration of obsession is ambitious but sometimes maddening in its execution. Frequent footnotes indicating where pages have been lost or redacted from the fictional lost memoir, meant to lend verisimilitude, add strain to a narrative that creaks at the seams as credulity is tested.
However, Peričić has gleaned something that readers of Kafka often overlook – his writing could be gloomy, but it was also funny, almost playful. His sphere of interest was the absurdity of the human condition, and he explored it with meandering sentences in which meaning was finally detonated by crazy German compound verbs that recast a sentence’s entire intent. There’s some of that playfulness here, and fans of Kafka will enjoy the interstices of meticulous historical research and wild leaps of imagination.
This is an imperfect novel of jealousy and obsession, but it’s more than redeemed by a brilliant bit of narrative switcheroo in the final coda. It subverts and reinterprets everything we’ve read before in a structural masterstroke that might have made Kafka himself jealous. ZC
Allen & Unwin, 276pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2017 as "Marija Peričić, The Lost Pages". Subscribe here.