In its German inaugural edition, this novel was titled September: Fata Morgana. Wonderfully translated by Mike Mitchell, the novel adapts the concept of a fata morgana (an unusual and complex form of superior mirage that is seen in a narrow band right above the horizon that distorts the view) to describe the world we live in after the events of 9-11, the attack on Afghanistan and the Bush-Blair war on Iraq. A Fata Morgana comprises several inverted and erect images that are stacked on top of one another. Told through the eyes of two men and their daughters, the narrative, like the mirage of the title, involves the storytellers trading reflections and descriptions as they forge, often dejectedly, through their lives. Both men — one a German professor teaching Goethe and poetics in Massachusetts and the other a doctor tending to the sick and wounded in Iraq — live lives focused on their daughters. Sabrina, the daughter of the former, dies in the Twin Towers with her mother (his ex-wife) on September 11, 2001. The youngest daughter of the latter, named Muna, watches with growing hopelessness as her family and nation disintegrates into a bedlam of murder, rape, and pilfering under the direction of Saddam Hussein first and then the American military.
I suppose this could be considered a 9-11 novel, although labeling it as such seems to limit its transcendent possibilities. Perhaps a more accurate characterization would be to consider this text as a reflection on the human search for meaning. However unfortunate it might be, the truth is that traumatic events like war and terrorism do provide stark contexts within which one can consider our reason for existence. Perhaps more easily, the despair endemic to such events lends great credence to those so inclined to believe there is no purpose to our time on earth. The main characters of September, along with those most closely associated with them, do seem to deepen their search for meaning because of the violent circumstances causing the loss of their loved ones. However, the actors (the soldiers in the US military and the insurgency, the religious believers, the looters and rapists) in the background merely find meanings provided by others—the military, religious leaders, criminal gangs, and governments—thereby annulling their search and simultaneously sharpening the contrast between the searchers and the “found.”
September has no overt politics, but a genuine weariness of war and those who fight them and gain from them pervades the narrative. The author Thomas Lehr is at best critical of the war in Iraq, the excesses of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the Iraqi insurgents, and the 9-11 terrorists who claim to be religiously motivated. At the same time, his characters are too intelligent to pretend that those who flew those planes on September 11, 2001 had a political understanding that did not consider Wall Street and Washington’s greed and military arrogance to be fundamental causes of most of the world’s problems. Still, like the rest of the background elements of the novel, the politics are there, but are not the essential element. Naturally, every reader brings their own interpretation of the matters on the page into the novel, too. While present in every piece of literature and in every reading of said literature, it could be reasonably argued that this interpretation matters even more in literature featuring events whose memory is recent.
After a certain point in our youth, we realize that our life will end. Yet, we continue living, dreaming dreams and maybe even fulfilling them. The knowledge that our lives will end is just something we carry with us. It does not seem to make a difference. However, how a life ends quite often does. That is what makes this narrative so compelling. We see how the lives lost do matter; to those closest and otherwise; how they can change world history even.
The entire novel is written without punctuation. While certainly a feat in its original German, to be able to maintain that structure and the integrity of the novel during translation is even more of one. If the intention is to create a dreamlike stream of narrative, September: Fata Morgana succeeds. Its namesake, the sorceress Fay de Morgana from the Arthurian epic, would be impressed. Bewitchingly and beguiling, this novel continually enchants the reader. A heartbreaking story of human relationships destroyed by war and destruction, it is also a story of love. Achingly beautiful and mournfully sad, this tale of loss is partly what we have become and partly what we always were. In a surreal final sequence, the lives of the survivors and the deaths of those they mourn blend into a moment in Amman, Jordan where Muna’s father and Sabrina’s finally meet by chance. The illusion of individual sorrows becomes a moment of human oneness in an ancient city.
There is so little room for hope in these pages, yet somehow hope remains.