by Joseph von Westphalen (1945- )
300 pgs. Catbird Press, 1995.
Originally published, 1991. Trans. by Melanie Richter-Bernburg, 1995.
The trove of diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks began trickling out last year has probably done little to stimulate your literary appetite or your appreciation for wit, but Joseph von Westphalen’s spirited novel will quickly remedy that situation with its humorous account of the world of diplomacy.
Too often, attempts at humor either fall flat or irritate from trying too hard. Not so in this lively, amusing and brainy look at the life of a German diplomat from 1975 to just after Germany’s reunification. Harry von Duckwitz is a young liberal lawyer who would rather fantasize about wooing his attractive courtroom opponents than defend his workaday clients. Out of the blue, he applies to become a diplomat with the Foreign Office, and thus begins a new career that takes him to Cameroon and Ecuador, with occasional stays back home in Bonn. He struggles with a profound sense of powerlessness in the course of his duties, and he tends to damage, rather than promote, German interests as he wrangles with fellow functionaries, politicians and military types. Along with his being opinionated, cynical, and indolent, Harry is contrarian to such an extent that he considers abandoning his own views when he finds others support them.
Harry is also an insatiable ladies’ man (of both the secretive affair and ménage variety), and his vibrant discussions with the women in his life are some of the brightest moments in the book – especially his forthright chats with Helen about a variety of subjects, substantial and trivial. Harry’s voice is consistently entertaining whether he is in the act of seducing, analyzing or disparaging; and the book is propelled by quick scene changes, even though it has far more to do with ideas than with taking action. Momentum builds delightfully in the last pages, and Harry arrives at an odd sense of triumph, even after his provocations have finally resulted in serious consequences for himself.
Westphalen piques the reader’s curiosity with pithy synopses at the head of each chapter, and he displays perfect comic pitch in the creation of the unforgettable Harry von Duckwitz.
The translation reads superbly, without a hitch. And if it’s the nondescript book cover that’s holding you back – don’t be fooled – this is sophisticated, top-shelf humor you really don’t want to miss.