Me and Kaminski: A Portrait That Isn’t A Portrait

“For example, I wanted to do a series of self-portraits, but not using my reflection in a mirror or photos, just drawing on the image I had of myself. Nobody has any idea what they really look like, we have completely false pictures of ourselves. Normally you try to even things out, using whatever you can. But if you do the opposite, if you intentionally paint this false picture, as accurately as possible, in every detail, with every characteristic trait…!” He banged on the table. “A portrait that isn’t a portrait! Can you imagine such a thing? But nothing came of it.”

41REs310GQL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_“How much of what I think of myself is true? Do I massage my ego by making more room for thoughts which flatter? Do I torment my soul by overexposing it?” I asked myself when I read that passage from Daniel Kehlmann’s Me and Kaminski, for TJ @ My Book Strings’s 12 Germans in 2016. The book is beautifully translated by Carol Brown Janeway.

The narrator Sebastian Zollner is so much like a lot of us. Even as he slides down the hill of life, he holds on to his ego tightly, and the very trait makes him more fascinating, even though he is annoying.

The 31-year-old journalist and critic wants to do something big with his life. He might be a mediocre journalist, he might be dumped by his girlfriend, but he hopes to redeem himself by writing the biography of an elusive, senile, intelligent, intuitive artist called Manuel Kaminski.

Zollner is so deluded that he fails to recognise the fact that Kaminski is not popular anymore. The proprietress of the cafe in Kaminski’s neighbourhood hasn’t heard of the artist. The critics in Zollner’s circle don’t remember Kaminski’s work. But Zollner hopes that Kaminski would say something sensational about his first love Therese, whom the artist believes is dead, and that Kaminski would die soon for the book to become a bestseller.

The duo embarks on an impromptu road trip after Zollner reveals that Therese is alive. On their way, they meet an unconventional thief, a prostitute who understands Kaminski well and ridicules Zollner, and when they finally meet Therese, the table turns. Their exchanges on art, artists’s ego, media, and identity made me laugh and think.

Although Zollner travels with Kaminski to discover more about the artist, he ends up meeting himself along the way, for Kaminski is not what Zollner thinks. Not only does Kaminski surprises Zollner, but he gently steers the journalist towards self-awareness. Daniel Kehlmann walks a tightrope, as he chooses bathos, but I wouldn’t have wanted Zollner to live with his delusions.

“I said to the proprietress how beautiful I thought it was to be here. She smiled proudly. Here in the countryside, in nature, even here in this station. Way away from everything, among simple people.

She said what did I mean.

Not among intellectuals, I explained, overeducated posturing types with university degrees. Among people who were close to their animals, their fields, and the mountains. Who went to sleep early and got up early. Who lived, instead of thinking!”

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15 thoughts on “Me and Kaminski: A Portrait That Isn’t A Portrait

  1. I don’t know the context for that last excerpt but am I right in interpreting it as positing living and thinking as two mutually exclusive states of being? I do get that different sets of people might tilt towards one or the other, to the extent that they completely forget about the other, but I don’t think one precludes the other. . . do you? If anything one feeds INTO the other, I’d think.

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    1. Interesting thought, Juhi. Thank you. 🙂 Your comment set me thinking. To my eyes, the passage looked like a light meditation on the preoccupation that enters one’s mind only because of overthinking. I am trying hard not to ramble. 🙂 So, when I was asked once how I could stop overthinking, I said I wanted to do a job that doesn’t demand me to think too much, and I want to live with animals, who have the power to bring me back to the present, and I want to become a creature of habits and routine. I said that’s living for me. Does it make sense, Juhi? 🙂

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      1. Yeah, I get it. I certainly understand your point about overthinking a thing—completely agree with that. And I completely get your desire to do whatever it takes to be able to find your center. . . I think I’m interested in finding the balance in it all WHILE molding the clay of life. . . I’m interested in increasing my capacity to experience the fun and joy *in* the details of life.

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  2. Great post.

    This sounds really good. The plot and the themes sound compelling.

    The questions that this book promoted that you posted are fascinating and in my opinion relevant to all people. I certainly ask myself similar things.

    As for – “Do I massage my ego by making more room for thoughts which flatter? ” I wonder if to some extent, this is true of most people including myself.

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