Seemingly a tantalizing love story amidst the beautiful, snowy winter in Germany, “The Storyteller” turned out to be a spellbinding cocktail of mystery, laughter, suspense, tears, murder and metaphors. As well as an eloquent warning to stalkers.
I had my doubts when I picked up the novel because its blurb reveals it as a hackneyed “good girl falls for the enigmatic bad boy” plot but Anna and Abel’s story tremendously deviates from the platitude. They are both genuine personalities, so disparate from one another, yet converging in a compelling romance brimmed with ill-timed questions and astonishingly overt answers.
Anna Leeman is in her last year of high school. There are just two months till graduation when she would take off to England to work as an au pair. She is an assiduous student with an affinity for music but despite her good grades, her affluent and understanding parents – she is discontent with her life. Though eighteen-years-old, she deems herself still as a little girl, “living inside her soap bubble, a beautiful and stubborn soap bubble”.
“Life seemed to consists of collecting points, points that were tallies into your final grade, like dollar bills in a strange game of Monopoly” Until the coldest day in winter – the day when she finds a doll under the coach in the student room and her life changes forever.
Abel Tannatek, commonly known as the Polish Peddler, is the pariah in school. Possibly a Nazi, a drug dealer, a nymphomaniac (well, succulent rumours circulate all schools at the speed of light), he is considered to be a tough guy who listens to white noise in order isolate himself from the rest of the world. But Abel has a tender side, exhibited only to his little sister Micha, of whom he takes care of.
Micha is an anchor for Abel. She endows his insufferable life with a meaning. Knowing that he would lose her, he puts his own life at stake, preferring to let go of himself than to live without her and what she represents. Hope, that is. Spring.
But winter seems interminable in a life so cruel and unfair, where people live in castes and the leap from an inferior to a superior class is always lethal. “Poor stays poor and rich stays rich, and those two, they will never meet.” So before they face together the real world and its shades of crudeness, Anna and Abel travel side by side in Micha’s favourite fairy tale created by her brother. A glorious story about a brave little cliff queen who embarks on the journey of her life after her island is shattered by the sea as red as blood.
But this is no ordinary fairy tale. The storyteller skillfully weaves his words so that they become keys to the intractable mysteries of his life – the questions that are yet to be asked and the questions that would never be asked. He confesses his most atrocious crimes and his most selfless sacrifices through the exploits of the little queen.
It doesn’t take long for Anna (and any girl reading, actually) to fall in love with this miraculous purported-Nazi who can create parallel worlds with mighty words in order to warn his little sister of the dangers and pitfalls that await her in the cold, repelling reality. You just sighed, didn’t you?
Antonia Michaelis offers thrilling insights into the multifarious nature of love. She brilliantly illustrates the inequities on earth and explores the impact of affliction and misery on our lives and how the environment we grow up in determines distinct traits in our personalities.
The novel raises profound unfathomable questions about the the abstruse order in the world. How come Anna lives in the house with the blue air with the laundry machine and the dryer; with the fireplace and the old piano while Abel and Micha are stuck in the eyesore with the sagging wallpapers, the DIY beds and the broken furniture? Unfortunately, “there are fewer answers in the world than questions, and if you ask me now why that is so, I must tell you there is no answer to that question.”
In spite of the woes and mishaps, the characters do not give up. They seek hope in parallel worlds, in simple joyous activities as ice skating, in momentous laughter and in each other. But even though sometimes the soap bubble and the white noise may intertwine, and Anna and Abel may find infinitesimal consolation in the other, they still have to strive by themselves for their own survival.
I loved “The Storyteller” because it is not a hokum. It depicts life in all its ambiguity, uncertainty, inequity and poignancy. It is a tale of an impossible love between a hapless boy, who has born so much pain, disappointment and fear, and a lucky girl, who realizes she never deserved all she had. It is a tragedy of infinite trust and betrayal, which reinforces the statement that we see only what we want to see.
“Go away princess. Leave your outlaw alone. You won’t change him… go away, Anna, far away, and don’t ever come back. The fairy tale doesn’t have a happy ending.”