January 24, 2008

Books: The Angel of History by Bruno Arpaia

Prior to reading 'The Angel of History' I had heard of the name Walter Benjamin, but didn't really know anything about him. A visit to Wikipedia helped give me an idea of who he was, but it's in the pages of this novel that Benjamin the person, rather than Benjamin the German Jewish thinker and writer, comes to life. The novel follows the last years of his life as he tries to flee the looming spectre of the Nazis. In the 1930s he escapes to Paris where he spends most of his time in the company of other writers and intellectuals sitting idly in cafes or reading in libraries. As the threat of war becomes more and more real, Benjamin has to decide whether to stay in Paris or try to escape to safety. It is here that Arpaia paints a picture of Benjamin who was totally at home in his books, but too sickly and ill-equipped to deal with the rigours of real life so that he doesn't act until the very last minute.

At the same time, the novel also tells the story of a (fictitious) young Spanish left-wing militant, Laureano, who fought in the Civil War, and is now on the run from the fascist government. Laureano is a man of action, and his is a story of war, comradeship and passion that contrasts starkly with Benjamin. The two men are from completely different worlds, but are destined to cross paths at some point.

Bruno Arpaia's novel is an impressive work indeed and he does an excellent job of both describing the fears and frustrations that people had to deal with on a daily basis in those times, as well as portraying a sympathetic and life-like image of Benjamin. Very enjoyable indeed, though the translation from the Italian could have been better edited.

'Angelus Novus' by Paul Klee, a painting that was owned by Walter Benjamin. He saw this picture as representing the angel of history, its back to the future while it contemplates the past and the increasing pile of wreckage and ruin that is produced by the catastrophe of history.
Walter Benjamin at work in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, photographed by Gisele Freund.

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