Katharina Hartwell ‘The Thief in the Night’

Katharina Hartwell’s latest book, ‘Der Dieb In Der Nacht’ ( The thief In the night) did not make it onto the Deutscher Buchpreis long list, but luckily it made it onto my reading list! As the novel begins, Felix has been missing with no trace from Berlin for ten years when Paul accidentally meets someone he is persuaded is Felix in Prague. This person presents himself as Ira Blixen.

Hartwell’s story is steeped in the five senses, the descriptions of taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing are detailed and present throughout the book as is Hans Andersen’s cruel view of the world (Felix’s mother studies Andersen and tells his stories to him and his sister).
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Paul is introduced to us as a photographer who goes through the prettiest city in the world (Prague) taking photos. And gets paid for it.
But something is clearly not as it should be, first of all Paul’s view of Prague is not so simple ‘The prettiest city in the world -what does that mean? How do you measure beauty in a city and who decides that it’s the prettiest of them all?’*** We learn he doesn’t like going out, prefers staying in with the curtains closed and when he is due to leave Prague Blixen asks him ‘Have you ever been over to the Kampa peninsula?’*** And Paul answers him ‘I still don’t have a good feel for the city, probably not, I haven’t seen much so far’*** and the narrator reinforces our feeling of something not being right when he adds ‘He hadn’t once managed to cross the Karlsbrücke to the other side, he had never been to the Café Slavia, he had not been to the astronomical clock in the old part of the city where he had not heard it chime at the hour, nor seen the skeleton figure ring it’s bell.’*** Odd behaviour for a photographer.
We are slowly shown Felix’s (and Paul’s) world, Paul comes from a dysfunctional (and poor) family which he refers to as his ‘wolf family’, from the moment he gets the chance he becomes Felix’s friend and quickly becomes part of his family up to the point where Felix’s mother, refers to him as their ‘adoptive son’, living with and off them. (a parasite?)
However Felix’s family is in itself far from ideal, his father is a recluse, living in their house but without a relationship to his children. Felix’s mother is present but extremely independent from both her husband and her children. Felix’s sister, Louise is younger than him and fragile.

The story enters a dreamlike portion where Blixen becomes a central character, taking over the lives of both Paul and Louise with a reference to a similar event in a Karen Blixen short story (a parasite?), the story then cycles between the real and the unreal, between the fairy tale and the hard reality of Felix’s absence.
This is a major piece of fiction, well worth an English and a French translation.

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Published in German in 2015 by Berlin Verlag
***My translation

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