This is a strange book to explain. It starts off feeling a litttle bit like The Trial, but then what initially seems to be another story of someone prosecuted for goodness-knows-what by a system that cares little for explaining itself, then becomes something quite other.
Stiller, you see, is missing. The main character and narrator, while on a train in Switzerland, is recognized by someone as the missing Stiller, having disappeared seven years earlier. The man then taken into custody insists that he is not Stiller, but everyone around him seems to take it for granted that he is.
It doesn't matter how many times the narrator protests, and tells wild stories of his life in the United States, Mexico, and South America. It doesn’t matter that his dental records don’t quite seem to match those of the lost Stiller. His wife seems quite sure he is Stiller, his brother, with whom he was never close, seems convinced he is Stiller, the state and the state’s prosecutor seem convinced that he is Stiller.
Yet, he assures us, as he assures everyone else, that he isn’t Stiller. And it starts to become convincing, even though I’m pretty sure there’s an indicative sentence on the very first page that suggests how seriously we ought to take the narrator’s claims. He certainly doesn’t seem to be much of anyone else, with a name that passes through maybe once, but is not insisted upon.
We find out about the missing Stiller’s life from the distance of the narrator learning about it and relating it with a fair amount of contempt to the audience. And it does feel like maybe this is a case of mistaken identity.
(I’m sure this is all sounding terribly serious - this book was frequently quite funny. Very dry wit, but I laughed more than once.)
And then it starts to become more and more apparent, that the narrator is Stiller, except that he himself feels himself so changed that that name no longer applies. In that, he even seems to convince others, even as he is pressured into admitting his identity legally.
But how much do we change who we are? Particularly when it comes to our relationships with other human beings - do we really change in how we interact with our spouses? Or how we see ourselves in relation to them? Stiller/notStiller is derisive of how Stiller treated his wife, and adamant about how he would do better. But will he? Is it even possible? If you haven’t seen the person you are sharing your life with as a fully human being, can you suddenly start? And is it enough to say you’ve changed?
These are all the issues this book is grappling with, and although I haven’t been reading a lot of older mainstream fiction/classics recently, I was intrigued by this one. It’s a little sterile at times, but there’s something there that may not be comforting, but is intriguing.