Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, British writer Deborah Levy’s latest novel is an evocative journey across a shape-shifting personal and political landscape. As Levy peels back each new layer of this at-times enigmatic story, there are new pleasures disclosed at every turn.
Levy’s narrator, Saul Adler, is a young English historian and the son of a passionate socialist. Saul’s specialty is communist Eastern Europe, and in the summer of 1988, he’s embarking on a research trip to East Berlin. Shortly before his departure, as he’s about to pose for a photograph taken by his artist girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau, who plans to capture him navigating the famed zebra crossing on London’s Abbey Road, he’s grazed by a passing automobile, an event that upends his already fragile psyche.
The remainder of The Man Who Saw Everything’s first half follows Saul to East Germany, where he finds himself entangled in a sexual triangle with his translator and minder Walter Müller and Walter’s sister, Luna, a Beatles-obsessed nurse who’s desperate to escape to the West, specifically Liverpool. Levy expertly navigates the complicated geometry of these relationships, all of them shadowed by the menace of the Stasi in the regime’s dying days.
In the novel’s second half, middle-aged Saul lies in a London hospital in 2016, just after the Brexit vote, under circumstances that seem to evoke his earlier mishap. In scenes that slip effortlessly into Saul’s dreams, hallucinations or episodes of pure memory, Levy excavates bits of his painful emotional life and casts a fresh light on some of the novel’s earlier events. Despite the occasional elusiveness of this technique, Levy’s storytelling is grounded in direct prose and vivid images, like the blossoms of a cherry tree that “fall like pink rain” or a copper relief sculpture in Berlin, ironically titled Man Overcomes Space and Time.
The Man Who Saw Everything is both intensely personal and fully cognizant of how the events of a rapidly changing world can alter lives in unexpected ways. Levy’s ability to keep these elements in balance with subtlety and assurance is a testament to her considerable artistic skill.