Hello to Berlin

<strong>Omega Minor

</strong>Paul Verhaeghen

<em>Dalkey Archive Press, 640pp, £9.99

</em>

Like so many Germans of his generation, Jozef de Heer - a survivor, a magician, a spy - has lived many lives. He dwelt in the underbelly of wartime Berlin. He went to Auschwitz, that "unimaginable reality on which logic cracks its teeth". In the German Democratic Republic, he mastered the art of illusion. Then, in 1995, while a freshly reunified Germany warily awaits the 50th anniversary of Hitler's death, de Heer attempts suicide. At the hospital he meets Paul Andermans, a Flemish postdoctoral student of the science of memory. Paul has recently suffered a brutal neo-Nazi attack: as he recovers, de Heer tells him stories. "History," he says, "is the lie people tell to give meaning to their past."

As befits a book partially named after the last letter of the Greek alphabet - a symbol used to represent everything from the end of a series to the density parameter of the universe - Omega Minor travels through time and space, fact and fiction, from storyline to storyline, hopping from bed to battlefield and back again with the easy promiscuity of a billy goat. In his treatment of 20th-century events, its author, Paul Verhaeghen, exhibits the chutzpah of an egotist and the familiarity of a polymath: he stops by the Führerbunker in the final days of the Battle of Berlin; shadows the GDR leader Erich Honecker as he masterminds the creation of the Wall; snuffles around Los Alamos while the brightest scientific minds (many of them Europeans Jews forced into exile by the Nazis) busy themselves with the Bomb.

His imagined versions of Albert Speer, Werner Heisenberg and the notorious Gestapo "catcher" Stella Goldschlag mix and mingle with entirely fictional creatures: Goldfarb, a disaffected, womanising Nobel laureate; Horst, a master forger and cheery resistance fighter; the thuggish, passionate neo-Nazi Hugo. Verhae ghen's inventions can be seductive - he imagines a host of glamorous, amorous female physicists and film stars - and delightfully silly. When Goldfarb checks in to the facilities at Los Alamos, he is given room T-236. "That must be right next to U-235, I suppose?" he quips (U-235 is the symbol for purified uranium).

With the skill of a conman, Verhaeghen charms his readers into fascinated vulnerability. His characters may be selfish and cruel, crazed and violent, but they are also appealingly human. When they lie and steal and whore and kill, it is sometimes for love: one young woman hunts down old Nazis to avenge her mother's suffering while another, a wartime immigrant, acts in porn films to support herself and her son.

The great conjurer Wladimar, a sad-eyed illegal who puts his black-market gains towards an underground railroad for Jewish refugees, becomes de Heer's mentor: "He tells us all, loud and clear, that survival is possible - if only you transform." The most chameleonic of them all is Berlin itself: a labyrinth, a web, a phoenix that rises inexorably from the ruins of war and dictatorship, a "city with enough cojones to dance on the dangerous edge of splendour and doom". Verhaeghen pictures a heartland of "rebels and agitators and jesters, and lunatics and dilettantes and noblemen and stoners and philosophers" - a place where people look the other way when strangers get beaten up on the S-Bahn.

In this brilliant, improbable mishmash of heart-rending horror and hilarious sex, of Hinduism and theoretical physics, of Greek mythology and conspiracy theory and Hebrew lore, Verhaeghen's dense, dazzling efforts are at once engaging and alienating. In a penultimate coup - the decisive gesture of a novel that so cleverly explores voyeurism and betrayal - he shows his hand, exposing a literary deception as canny as any card trick, as callous as any police tip-off. Omega Minor then degenerates into a sort of postmodern, post-apocalyptic romp, racing towards a brash finale that is slightly disappointing but entirely understandable: suspected or not (there are many clues), it would be practically impossible to outdo the earlier disclosure.

This is the first time that fiction by Verhaeghen, a Belgian-born cognitive psychologist, has appeared in English. His self-translation nimbly treads the perimeters of the language, seemingly seeking, as de Heer's disciple Paul does, to shed light on humanity's more incomprehensible actions: "We cannot change the course of the world, but what we can do is rework the text until it creates the illusion that the world indeed has changed, or that at least a part of it has become less impenetrable."

Verhaeghen's methods are far from conventional: his flights of increasingly conspicuous fancy categorically overturn any notion of an empirical approach. Omega Minor is the work of a literary illusionist who recognises the value of diversion - and a scientist intimately acquainted with the treachery of human memory.

On 8 May "Omega Minor" was awarded the 2008 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. In his acceptance speech, Paul Verhaeghen denounced the war in Iraq and donated his £10,000 prize money to the American Civil Liberties Union

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel