By: Andromeda Romano-Lax
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
Ernst Vogler is twenty-six years old in 1938 when he is sent to Rome by his employer—the Third Reich’s Sonderprojekte, which is collecting the great art of Europe and bringing it to Germany for the Führer. Vogler is to collect a famous Classical Roman marble statue, The Discus Thrower, and get it to the German border, where it will be turned over to Gestapo custody. It is a simple, three-day job.
Things start to go wrong almost immediately. The Italian twin brothers who have been hired to escort Vogler to the border seem to have priorities besides the task at hand—wild romances, perhaps even criminal jobs on the side—and Vogler quickly loses control of the assignment. The twins set off on a dangerous detour and Vogler realizes he will be lucky to escape this venture with his life, let alone his job. With nothing left to lose, the young German gives himself up to the Italian adventure, to the surprising love and inevitable losses along the way.
The Detour is a bittersweet novel about artistic obsession, misplaced idealism, detours, and second chances, set along the beautiful back-roads of northern Italy on the eve of war.
Funny little aside, I thought the author was Spanish and was going to put this under Everything Espana Reading Challenge 2014 that I am participating in. I guess I mixed up my authors or whatnot because she’s not a Spanish author, her debut novel, The Spanish Bow (review), was just set in Spain 😉 Nonetheless, I’m excited to be reading her second novel, it has all of the elements of a historical fiction that I enjoy reading about: art, Italy, set during the Second War World. Contains some spoilers ahead!
The novel had a promising story with a character that seemed to have more going on that the reader might thing. Ernst seems a little bland at first: not into travelling, trying new things and new foods, doesn’t like to stray out of the order of things, is apolitical, doesn’t really have any particular strong feelings about an idea or about what’s happening or emotionally. He plays it safe, and some of his actions in training camp shows this. He has a very clinical approach to art which seems to miss the connection between beauty and the outside world. Over the course of the novel, the reader learns that he has a rather sad upbringing with an alcoholic father, a distant relationship with his sister, and a “defection” that dogged him over the course of his childhood; all of those experiences more or less left a mark on his personality, but given that the story is told in his first-person narration, it makes for a rather sullen read.
The presence of Cosimo and Enzo, the Italian twins hired to escort Vogler and the statue to the border, seems to make up for Ernst’s persona with their varying tempers and passions and general expressiveness. I think Ernst found them mildly annoying with the detours and the stops and breaks, but I found it especially hard to tell despite the fact that the story is told from his perspective. Nonetheless I wish we spent more time with those two before the craziness broke loose because of their vibrancy.
The novel takes a rather dark turn in the second half of the novel as what seemed to be a simple escort job to Germany becomes a bit of a heist and an all-around tragedy. Ernst’s job is further derailed as he meets more members of Cosimo and Enzo’s family and falls in love in the process. Ernst’s middling stance is challenged–I can perhaps understand his reluctance to be more passionate and assertive stemming from his father’s solven ways–and I think he’s come to a few understandings of his own. Yet despite of the hardships and these challenges that he faces, I can’t help but feel he hasn’t changed much by the end of the novel. Yes, time and the war has left their mark on him and he’s much older and sober/wiser? at the end, but he still comes across as aloof. I just don’t see the journey having left any sort of permanent change in him, one that has convinced me at the very least.
So yeah, in the end it was hard for me to decide what to make of this novel. On the one hand I enjoyed the discussion and perspectives on art and its impact on civilisation, the Italian countryside and the bits of language thrown in here and there. On the other hand, the main character was rather wanting for something right up to the very end and the overall story wasn’t so much adventurous as it was rather sad. I wasn’t necessarily left indifferent by the story but yeah, it just left me rather wanting *shrugs*