In an unnamed European village, in the middle of a civil war, one man digs while another watches over him. Slowly, they begin to talk….
Written in 2003, Schopenhauer’s Telescope is part philosophical discussion, part historical novel, part allegorical moral narrative and part suspense thriller. No place or time is specified, no character is named. All we have is a scene, in a wintery field in a European Country in the midst of an unknown civil war, where two men are stood. One is digging a hole. One is watching over him. The unease of the situation comes across immediately, as the unforgiving and sinister landscape is described in bleak and chilling detail through the voice of the man digging, in short self reflecting sentences that break off a word or two before it is really comfortable to. Gradually, the two men begin to talk, giving us as the reader the only way of identifying them throughout the entire novel – the digging man is the village Baker, the man standing watch is the Teacher. With any other novel, perhaps it would be frustrating to not know the country, the men, the year these events takes place in, whether it is based on fact or is purely fiction. Reading through to the end, however, you realise you don’t need to know, and in fact you wouldn’t want to know. Facts would be obstacles to the provocative and challenging voice this novel speaks in, and facts would hinder your own judgements of its tale.
Because judge you are intended to – Donovan cleverly leaves out leading indications of actions and morality, leaving you unsure who is the ‘bad’ guy and who is ‘the good’ guy, which side they are both on, whether they are even on the same side, why the war is taking place, whether the Baker is being punished and what for.
The dialogue between the Baker and the Teacher focuses on love, cruelty, hopelessness, obligation and choice. They discuss death, life, evil, what is right, and who decides what each of these things mean anyway. The narrative is elegant and yet straight to the point, corroborating shocking statements with commentary on the weather and speculations over what is yet to come. We skip between events in the past and events in the present, in the field, told alternately by the Baker and Teacher. At some points they adopt different persona’s, taking on characters from stories they are narrating, replaying their own histories and allowing us to place ourselves in their lives, allowing us to continue to judge them. You feel their reminiscences are to enable them to escape the field, and the hole, and for a while you forget too, you are dragged between their histories before being pulled back into the harsh cold reality of their current predicament.
Fascinating, sickening, inventive, challenging, gripping, terrifying – Schopenhauer’s Telescope is unlike any other tale exploring the good/evil axis. Unnervingly innocent in places, the novel has elements of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, in that you end the book in a slightly different place (morally) to where you started and to where you expected to. A definite recommend for anyone who loves crime fiction, war stories, philosophy, or who just enjoys to be challenged