The novel follows protagonist Mina Koblitz on a journey to discover the truth about her grandfather, the legendary (in some circles) German film director Klaus “Kino” Koblitz. When a rare case of Dengue Fever cuts her honeymoon short, Mina returns to her apartment sans husband to discover that someone has left her a special delivery — a print of Tulpendiebe (aka The Tulip Thief), Kino’s long lost first film. In short order, Mina abandons her hospital-bound husband for adventure as she’s pursued across the globe by shady quasi-governmental agents who are hell-bent on getting their hands on the movie, which, it turns out, has a secret, game-changing value all its own.
Structurally, Kino offers a pair of competing narratives that depict the mercurial director in distinctly conflicting terms. On one hand, there’s Kino’s journal, the pained record of an artist’s struggle to create something beautiful despite the sturm und drang of his tortured life. In his words, “If you have enough faith in the imagination, nothing is impossible.” This basic dictum is born out by his hedonistic early years in Weimar Germany’s burgeoning film industry and helps, in part, to explain his reluctant acquiescence to Nazi dictates in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power.
Yet as his life falls apart, Kino lays the blame for his own artistic failures on everybody but himself: Joseph Goebbels, Fritz Lang, and his long-suffering wife, Penelope. Indeed, it’s Penelope who offers Mina the most damning perspective on Kino, painting him not as an artist so much as a drunken schemer at his best and a stooge of the Third Reich at his worst. Ninety-two years old and living the life of a drug-addled recluse in the Hollywood Hills, Penny, as she is now called, harbors nothing but ill will toward her late husband and his legacy. “People enjoy being lied to, especially when times are bad,” she tells Mina. And for her money, there was no greater liar than the self-aggrandizing Kino.
What makes Kino so compelling is that the truth of the matter for which Mina is searching lies not somewhere in between the contrasting narratives that she discovers but in a curious aggregate of both. That her grandfather can simultaneously embody all the wonder of cinema and all the failures that make him human gives Mina a ray of hope amidst the turmoil of her own life.
Art, it turns out, can change the world.
Again quoting Kino, “Only at play are we open to our full potential.” Along these lines, it’s Fauth’s fondness for play that makes the novel such a joy to read. Part Da Vinci Code and part The Crying of Lot 49, Kino marks the debut of a captivating literary voice who is equally adept at thrilling, enchanting, and even challenging his readers.