"Shadow Without a Name"
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JUN 18, 2003)
"My father used to say his name was Viktor Kretzschmar. He was a pointsman on the Munich-Salzburg line and not the type to decide, on the spur of the moment, to commit a crime."
So begins the brilliant Shadow Without a Name, a book that doubtless deserves the award for best opening lines in a novel in recent memory. The narrator here is Franz Kretzschmar, a young recruit in the Third Reich, haunted by questions of identity--both of his own and his father's. As he recounts, on an old dilapidated train long ago, Viktor Kretzschmar met Thadeus Dreyer. Both expert chess players, a deal was struck: "if my father won, the other man would take his place on the eastern front and hand over his job as pointsman in hut nine on the Munich-Salzburg line. If, on the other hand, my father lost, he would shoot himself before the train reached its destination." As a result of that wager, a Viktor Kretzschmar spends the rest of his days as a frustrated pointsman and Lieutenant Colonel Thadeus Dreyer is decorated with the Iron Cross for his actions on the front.
As the novel proceeds, "Thadeus Dreyer" becomes a mere hook of a name that many grasp at, in the process trying to change their own past and seeking out a new identity. Padilla's narrative moves through four narrators; all have their own interpretations of the truth. The second narrator Richard Schley, is a young seminarian in 1918 on the Austrian front when he meets his old playmate, Jacob Efrussi, now posing as Thadeus Dreyer. Towards the end, Dreyer, we discover has a new avatar in the form of Polish baron, Blok-Cissewsky. Narrator Daniel Sanderson one of the heirs to the baron's fortunes, must understand connections between the count and Colonel Eichmann who was hung for Nazi war crimes. As part of Project Amphitryon, one of Dreyer's babies, and one of many Nazi projects, young look-alikes were trained to replace many key Nazi figures at public ceremonies. The novel hints at the possibility that the real Eichmann was not the one who underwent trial and later hung for his crimes. What if he had been replaced?
Shadow Without A Name does a brilliant job at questioning identity and its place in the human psyche. Its characters must deal with their lives against the powerful backdrop of war, one that has the power to drown. The struggle to keep one's identity and sense of purpose afloat amidst the crushing weight of history is illustrated wonderfully by Franz Kretzschmar when he says:
There was nothing so futile in Berlin, as a personal motive whatever it might be. Even individual memories dissolved into the huge miasma of a common, grandiose future in which men need no longer worry about their petty gripes, let alone the legitimacy of a name that would evaporate in the enthusiasm of happy, anonymous multitudes. Such a vision could blind anyone, but sometimes, when I was being dazzled in the middle of a meeting or a parade, my secret reasons for being there--alien and even opposed to the party that sheltered me--demanded a painful return to common sense or the particular, ravaged memory of my father.
Padilla skillfully incorporates ideas of destiny, fate and half-truths through the metaphors of chess games, labyrinths and mazes. As in the game of chess, individual lives are manipulated and their destinies altered, from above. Each narrator speaks convincingly of the truth yet as Thadeus Dreyer changes many identities, we realize that one's version of truth is limited by one's vision of it. "I resigned myself to thinking that, in certain cases, clues and labyrinths led only to small spaces lit exclusively by minimal, personal truths," says Sanderson, "Perhaps we are condemned to keep searching for absolute truth, ever frustrated by those titbits of explanation with which the sour architect who rules over this endless labyrinth deigns to placate us from time to time."
One of the many strong points of Shadow Without A Name is its very strong, stark imagery very reminiscent of noir cinema. Perhaps mockingly, Sanderson even refers to the executor of the baron's will, as "Bogart" because he "bore a grotesque resemblance to the actor." Many scenes in the novel are as vividly picturised as in a movie. It is to Padilla's credit that he achieves this spectacular visual effect with an amazing economy of words.
The author Ignacio Padilla, is one of the founders of the "Crack" movement in Mexican literature an attempt to recapture some of the writings of the old masters--Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes amongst others. Padilla has spoken out against the cliché, "magical realism" which he says has lead to the Hollywoodization of Mexican literature spawning many cheap imitators of the masters. A cultural attaché at the Mexican embassy in London, Padilla has said that being Mexican doesn't restrict him from writing about any other place that he finds interesting. Shadow Without a Name, his first book to be ably translated into English, proves without a doubt that Padilla can indeed write about anything that he chooses, and do so brilliantly.
"The problem with playing chess using human pieces is that they tend not to respect the most basic rules," says a character in the novel. It is precisely this "problem" that makes Shadow Without a Name such an intellectually satisfying read.
- Amazon readers rating: from 13 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Shadow Without a Name (April 2003) (Originally published as Amphitryon, 2000)
- Antipodes: Stories (May 2004)
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- Wikipedia page on Ignacio Padilla
- Independent interview with Ignacio Padilla
- El Crack Viene de México (in Spanish)
- Complete Review on Shadow without a Name
- January Magazine review of Antipodes
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About the Author:
Ignacio Padilla was born in 1968 and grew up in Mexico City surrounded by literature and language. His father (an industrial relations manager) and mother (a psychologist) spoke Spanish, English, French and German. Padilla is fluent in seven languages. He is the author of several award-winning novels and short story collections, and is currently the cultural attaché at the Mexican Embassy in London.