Woraus wir gemacht sind
(What We Are Made Of)
Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch, August 2006, 336 pp
It is early September 2002 and a German writer, Niklas Kalf, is in New York for the first time. He has just published a biography of a Jewish-German physicist named Eugen Meerkaz, who emigrated to the USA in the late 1930s. Niklas is accompanied by his wife Liz, who is several months pregnant. The hot New York summer and the first anniversary of the World Trade Center catastrophe weigh heavily on the city. The looming Iraq war casts a long shadow.
On the morning of their third day in the city, Liz is kidnapped. In return for her release her anonymous captor demands information on secret experiments that Meerkaz had supposedly conducted - information Niklas does not have. In desperation, he re-examines every fact about the scientist and every document in his possession and comes up with one faint lead - a letter addressed to Meerkaz's widow Elsa by a German soldier and postmarked in Marfa, TX.
When Meerkaz first arrived in the USA he started working at Cal Tech, where some of the brilliant rocket propulsion researchers were also enthusiastic occultists. Indeed, one of them, John Parsons, would practise his occult art before each rocket test launch. All this Niklas will find out much later in the story. In the meantime he travels to Marfa, a town beyond the range of cell phone networks, and there he meets the son of Hans Holdt, the one-time German prisoner of war in America and member of Meerkaz's occultist group who wrote the letter to Elsa Meerkaz and to whom she turned over all the documents about her husband's secret activities. Niklas gives these to the kidnapper, a Hollywood producer by the name of Jack Jackson whose passion for liberty has driven him over the edge, and his wife and newborn child are freed.
This is a literary thriller that has it all. Hettche is very good at pointing out some of the paradoxes and contradictions of which human existence seems to be composed and asking the question 'What are we made of?'. He tackles a current and sensitive yet timeless topic with all the delicacy, love of detail, historical knowledge, cultural savvy and writing skills it deserves. A palpable, and potentially international, hit.