Eagles and Angels by Juli Zeh

Eagles and Angels is set in a noisy world. “I recognize her voice through the door,” the first sentence tells us, thus establishing hearing as the novel’s dominant channel, as it were. The central character and narrator, Max, is deaf in one ear. His girlfriend, Jessie, commits suicide by shooting herself in the ear, while talking to Max on the telephone (“there must have been blood and brains all over it”). Doorbells, telephones and other sudden sounds constantly interrupt the development of scenes, in a device partly derived (despite the dominant visual aspect of the cinema) from film: “The doorbell frightens me out of my skin every time,” Max tells us. At the same time, what he doesn’t or won’t hear gives important clues to his character. “Music means fuck all to me,” he tells the novel’s other central figure, Clara. No romantic, our Max.

Clara, officially a radio reporter researching Max for her psychology dissertation, has a double identity as “Lisa.” Max has at least two identities, one being the strung-out, cocaine-addled, hallucinating wreck that tells us about itself. The other may be a former persona as an international lawyer of some importance, brokering major European Union deals between states. The real states here, though, are states of mind, and in particular those freaked-out mental states that characterise the tradition of drug-trade books and films from Burroughs to Welsh, from Ulrich Edsel’s Christiane F. to post-Tarantino Hollywood trips.

Juli Zeh’s prose (well-translated from the original German by Christine Slenczka) is more than up to the task of conveying to reader these states. It switches, in a motion that is both inexorable and disconcerting, between the fractured and dislocated monologue accompanying the bender that Max is currently indulging in, and the more coherent (because, perhaps, more imaginary) narrative of his past: his relationships with Jessie and with the shadowy Shershah, his working for Rufus, star lawyer and dodgy company director. As a study of how the paranoid mind works (or doesn’t work), Eagles and Angels is on the way to definitive. Here’s Max walking through Vienna with Clara:

She’s swaying, so we walk arm in arm through the narrow lanes, silent. It’s going well, as if we’ve always done this. It’s like dancing, choreographed for hands and feet as we avoid things together: parked cars which leave a narrow space to walk in, construction sites, potholes, rubbish, roots and uneven paving. We just have to hold on to each other, stay in step, keep up the pace, press our bodies together whenever we can. I think about dancing being nothing more than the art of avoiding rubbish together.

This metaphor for life as Max, the lord of this dance, has lived it slots firmly into the novel as a whole. Max’s world is frazzled, almost wholly lacking in interiority (the section on ‘Dreams’ in Clara’s file on him is “empty”; “Memories,” he informs us early on, “are really just like television”). Instead, his narrative concentrates on dancing cross the surface of things, skipping over any puddles that might be dangerously deep.

This superficiality, with its moral cognates of dispassion, alienation and the utter absence of genuine love, affords the structuring motif of Zeh’s novel. “You’re like a bag of peanut shells,” Max tells Clara. “Sometimes I dip in and think I’ve got one, but they’re really just shells, hollow.” She denies this (“I’m not hollow, I’m concave”) but later, another character challenges Max (“I’m no philosopher, and I don’t believe in philosophy”) with the philosophical assertion that “all truth really lies on the surface of things and the core is empty.” This character is called Schnitzler, after the Austrian novelist who wrote Traumnovelle, the inspiration for Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut(1999) and a suitably offbeat reference point forEagles and Angels.

The novel maps out Vienna and some elements of its underworld, exploiting the city’s near-border status (there’s only the Burgenland between it and the Old East, a short train ride to Bratislava) and its mix of old Austro-Hungarian architecture with the new UN City. In doing so, it constructs a complex, deftly woven narrative of drug dealing, international politics (Max’s dog is called Jacques Chirac, because Max couldn’t spell Giscard D’Estaing), the Balkan wars, teenage delinquency and postmodern nihilism (Clara’s radio show is called “BLEAK WORLD”). At times the novel is confusing; thankfully Zeh, an international lawyer herself, treads lightly on the particularly legal dimensions, but elsewhere the reader sometimes needs their wits about them to keep up.

Max’s world is not a pleasant one (there are some brutal moments here, and his world view is sickeningly misogynistic), and we’re immersed in it, from the novel’s insistent use of present tense narration, through to its scary insinuation of the prevalent complicities between art, politics, money and male violence. Momentary allusions to Austrian Freedom Party leader Jörg Haider, whose face appears on posters graffitied with Hitler moustaches, suggest one target of the novel’s critique. Other more covert echoes of Edsel’s film, of Fassbinder’s autopsies of post-war Germany, of Stefan Ruzowitzky’s Anatomie and of Professor von Hagen’s controversial Körperwelten exhibition, shown in Vienna in 1999, suggest that we are to read the emphasis on the auditory as moving in dance-like harmony with the visual world that Max’s narration constructs for us:

The wider of the two streets wound right round the park in a broad curve, like a roundabout. Jessie appeared in the mouth of the underpass, like an apparition. Her yellow hair seemed to be glowing. She walked towards me unbearably slowly, holding a hamburger tightly in both hands. I was so happy to see her.

Juli Zeh’s novel offers a dense, thoughtful analysis of a viciously capitalist Europe seemingly on the brink of collapse into corruption, anarchy and violence, through the mind of a man integral to this world, helplessly revelling in the chaos he has wrought. One emerges from reading this novel breathless, as if from a switchback ride, horrified but wanting more.