My rating: 4 stars
To tell a captivating story is not an easy undertaking. When an author decides to pen two intertwined stories told from different perspectives in one single book, the task becomes even more complex. But Herman Koch achieves that almost flawlessly in Dear Mr. M, while mixing a crime story with a reflection on writing, fiction, and the need to choose the right elements in order to create a compelling plot. This is no fast-paced thriller. It uses a murder to explain the necessary differences between fiction and reality.
The book starts with an extended letter to Mr. M, a renowned writer, from a neighbour who is in a way spying on him and his wife. He details everything he knows about Mr M’s movements. It seems that he is aware of all his steps and is obsessed with him and his family. For that reason, the first chapters have quite a creepy feeling to them. It’s slightly uncomfortable how the neighbour is able to paint a picture about what happens at Mr. M’s home from the sounds he hears. When he doesn’t know exactly what is happening, he comes up with informed guesses. But some things he is sure about, like him having a daughter and his wife being much younger than he is. Both of them are away at the time he is writing.
The neighbour is a reader of Mr. M’s books and knows that he is not as famous as he once was. In fact, he sees him as a mediocre writer. Right from the beginning he makes his reservations about his talent quite clear.
“A mediocre writer serves a life sentence. He has to go on. It’s too late to change professions. He has to go on till the bitter end. Until death comes to get him. Only death can save him from his mediocrity.”
Nevertheless, he wants to provide him with new material for a book. He has decided to tell him his story, starting when he was still at high school. His girlfriend from back then had had a relationship with their history teacher, who didn’t react well when she broke up with him and started dating Mr. M’s neighbour instead. The way in which he acted when he was younger seems consistent with the actions of his older self. We soon realise that his life is connected with one of Mr. M’s previous works – a book about the possible murder of a teacher.
Other parts of the book are narrated in the third person from Mr. M’s perspective. He reflects on how he used elements from his personal life in some of his books, sometimes in really obvious ways, on how he feels about his career, and on his political views (which don’t seem to be all that relevant for the overall plot). We also get to know how his mother died and about his father involvement in the Second World War.
At first, I wasn’t liking this part of the story as much as the one narrated by the neighbour, because it lacks the mysterious and creepy feeling conveyed in the first chapters. Overall, my favourite parts of the book were the ones revolving around the neighbour, both when he is doing the narration and when we are told about his past from his former girlfriend’s perspective. However, when the two strands started to converge, the different points of view became equally enjoyable and attention-grabbing.
Plenty of considerations about writing and literature are made throughout the book. The neighbour even interrupts the telling of his own story to provide some sound writing advice, to explain techniques, and to muse on film adaptations.
“Three hundred thousand readers; that’s three hundred thousand different faces for each character. Three hundred thousand faces that are destroyed at one fell swoop by that one face in the movie. As a reader, it’s pretty tough to remember that imaginary face after seeing the actor on the screen.”
Almost all of the characters introduced in Dear Mr. M are fleshed out, even the ones who may seem unimportant for the development of the plot. It feels like plenty of thought was put into their characterisation, which is achieved through the presentation of their actions, thoughts and dialogues. Although the main characters are truly fascinating, they are not particularly likeable. For example, the neighbour makes some misogynistic comments about Mr. M’s wife, because she married a far older man. He talks about her with contempt. Nevertheless, we are not led to believe that we should share his views on the subject.
I was surprised by the revelation at the end of the book, but it does make sense in the context of the themes delved into. Herman Koch must have taken a long time to decide when to introduce certain elements, in order to still manage to surprise the readers once the pieces of the puzzle were apparently all put together.