Reviewers have read this as a story of self-absorption, but I see it instead as an investigation of the ways trauma disrupts time.
Saul, the protagonist, is a bisexual man who carries a hefty load of queer trauma. After his mother’s death his father and his brother torture him for being “inappropriately” masculine, and if you know about gender/sexuality trauma, you know that it never, ever goes away. Society will never stop being heteronormative, and every fresh reminder of your unfittingness will break the wound wide open.
When we encounter him, Soul is startlingly beautiful and universally attractive. His girlfriend has turned down his marriage proposal and, since he’s a scholar of the GDR and, fittingly, also a scholar of male dictators and their attitudes toward women (is he himself the women dictators abuse?), he goes to East Berlin to do research. In East Berlin traumatized, queer Saul lives that most heady of all times: the miraculous point in one’s youth when suffering and delight are equally acute and plentiful, and life feels like a torrential, delicious flood of pathos, lust, and love.
No one can stay long in such time. People prolong it with drugs but it inevitably ends. The mind cannot take all that intensity, and life anyway doesn’t work that way.
The non-traumatized mind (or the not-too-traumatized mind) moves on, looks back with nostalgia or embarrassment, incorporates the past into the present through memory, and finds a way to create satisfaction and contentment (and joy!) in adult living. The traumatized mind remains stuck in the past and the past is the present and its presence and absence equally torture us.
Levy is doing two things here:
The first is the thought experiment, would you survive a trip into your headiest days? Could you carry on after the acute re-experiencing of what you had and lost?
The second is an investigation of the mind of those who cannot but live in two places at once — the suffering and excitement of their past, the inevitable disappointment of their present.
I think the thought experiment is not really the point here. I think the point is that saul needs to go back, and back, and back, and both fix the terrible things that happened to him and also relive the grand things that happened to him and, this time, make them last, make them not go away. He needs to be back there and make it all override the way his life has become.
I love levy’s portrayal of the free, whirlwind, reciprocated desire Saul experiences in East Berlin. It’s beautiful and queer and delightful. Saul is innocent and kind, forgetful and selfish; he gets to have a second, less troubled childhood. He is hurt and he smothers this hurt in sex, as queer people sometimes do. Queer sex connects Saul to himself and heals, to an extent, or for the moment.
We don’t really know what the rest of saul’s life is like. We know he is loved, at least by some, and we also know that he fails massively at being happy.
Time is a kindness. Queer-traumatized people, most of us, find some relief in the dulling that time brings. How can one survive reliving freshly the moments when everything was still possible? Maybe one can’t.
Painting: Fred Smilde, Until that Time.