A Price to Pay by Alex Capus

Translated by John Brownjohn

Reviewed by Annabel

a price to payAlex Capus is a French-Swiss novelist who writes in German. He was born in France and now lives in Switzerland. He has written several novels and works of non-fiction including the WWI story Léon and Louise (2012) which was longlisted for the German Book Prize. John Brownjohn has translated several of his books into English, but this was my first encounter with Capus.

In the opening pages, we are gradually introduced to the three characters that the novel follows:

I like the girl. It pleases me to picture her sitting in the open doorway of the rearmost carriage of the Orient Express with the glittering silver waters of Lake Zurich gliding past her. It could be early November 1924, I don’t know the exact date. She is thirteen years old, …

It’s quite possible that, as she entered the city in November 1924, the girl caught sight of a young man who often used to sit on the loading platform of a grey, weather-worn goods shed, watching the trains pull in and out and ruminating on the future course of his life. In my mind’s eye he kneads his cap in his hands as the Orient Express passes him and catches sight of the girl in the doorway of the rearmost carriage, who eyes him with casual interest. …

A signal between the tracks goes green denoting that the Geneva Express is free to leave the station. Seated in a first-class compartment on this early November day in 1924 – whether it is really at the same hour on the same day cannot be stated with absolute certainty – is the painter Émile Gilliéron.

Thus the author puts these three people all at Zurich station on the same day in November, 1924. Two on different trains, one waiting – they all pass each other, but after this fleeting moment will never cross paths again. Capus makes it clear in his narration that this convergance is an imagined situation, a romantic flight of fancy and a device to hang his story from. I didn’t mind this at all.

They each go off in separate directions to follow the rest of their lives. The title of the novel in German, Der Falscher, Die Spionin Und Der Bombenbauer – The Forger, the Spy and the Bombmaker tells us broadly what their lives turn out to be, but there is ‘A Price to Pay’ for the choices they make.

The three lives chronicled are actually those of real people, Émile Gilliéron, Laura d’Oriano and Felix Bloch – minor characters who nevertheless each have an important part to play in WWII. The book is dedicated to them.

Émile is the forger, returning from his home in Greece to scatter his father’s ashes on Lake Geneva. His father, Émile sr, had worked for Heinrich Schliemann, painting the excavations of Troy and Mycenae – an expert in artistically picturing how a whole urn may have appeared from a single potsherd. Capus tells us how the younger Émile grew up to become a draughtsman and made a name for himself working on the ruins of Knossos, but was later also a producer of reproductions and more questionable artworks.

Laura will become the spy – her mother was a cabaret singer, and she grew up travelling all over Europe before they settled in Marseille to manage a sheet music shop. This is not the life for Laura, she marries and has children, but can’t fit in in the homeland of her Swiss husband. She runs away to Paris where she begins to follow in her mother’s footsteps, later moving to Italy having been recruited to become a spy for the Allies.

Felix is a young idealist. An engineer by training and a pacifist by nature. Purely for fun, he had attended some lectures on quantum mechanics by the young professors developing this field of physics and was convinced he had found a niche in which to apply his engineering skills. Cycling home, he planned what he would tell his father:

He would tell him about curved space-time, to the extent that he had understood it, and about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Paul Scherrer’s X-ray camera, about the wondrous stability of matter and the mysterious simplicity of natural laws. He might even speak of his suspicion that lying deep beneath the surface of atomic phenomena was a bedrock of remarkable intrinsic beauty.

Felix will go on to escape to the USA where Los Alamos beckons, and begins his participation on Robert Oppenheimer’s Manhattan Project.

The novel follows each of the three lives through and a postscript chapter tells how their lives ended and their lasting effects, for each made significant waves in their own small way.

With the exception of telling the story of Emile’s father, the narrative is essentially chronological, starting from that initial convergance. It then flits between the three protagonists as they criss-cross over Europe. Having started off with the person of the narrator/author getting us into the story, Capus drops the first person interjections, just telling us the story in a straight-forward and classic manner.

Given that there is much drama in the lives of Émile, Laura and Felix, it never becomes melodrama, but there is much to intrigue and plenty to charm. The book relates its history calmly and thoughtfully, giving us the space to appreciate the characters’ fates – and leaves us wondering what would have happened if these three people had actually met?

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Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books Editors, and has passed through Zurich a couple of times – but not in November 1924.

Alex Capus, A Price to Pay (Haus Publishing, London, Oct 2014) 978-1908323736, hardback, 281 pages.

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