Book review

Where Were You, Robert? by Hans Magnus Enzensberger (1998)

This is a time travel book by one of Germany's most well-known authors. He is a poet and novelist, writing primarily for adults. I first 'discovered' Enzensberger, the poet, when I was a young teenager at secondary school, and consequently was delighted when Where Were You, Robert? popped up in the shops. A new work, newly translated.

It isn't at all what I was expecting. It's a rather strange book.

Essentially, Robert, a lonely, only child, quite suddenly begins to drift through time. By fixing on a picture - film, painting or photograph - he is transported to the place itself. His first adventure takes him to a ghastly life in Siberia in 1956. In some time travel stories the traveler can control his departure and arrival quite accurately, but in this story, Robert doesn't understand how he comes to be in Siberia and settles down into a dreary, poverty-stricken life there. He thinks he is marooned, out of his own time and place. He is taken in by Olga, a Russian pharmacy attendant and stays in her impoverished flat with communal kitchen.

Robert has a series of seven adventures in outlandish, rather unreal places and time zones, always drifting backwards in time. He spends many months in each place, resigned to the fact that he cannot escape. Some themes run through the whole book. For instance, the collection of junky bits and pieces which Robert carries with him in his jacket pocket from time zone to time zone, both benefit him in his travels and incriminate him. Gradually, he loses them all along the way, leaving his twentieth-century junk scattered through time like derelict satellites orbiting the earth. But he does manage to bring one thing back with him from 1621, when he finally returns to his own kitchen, a couple of years after his journey began.

Where has Robert been? Well, he must have been somewhere because he brings back the paintbrush, to prove it. So it wasn't all just a bad dream. How long has he been away for? Robert thinks he was away for a couple of years, but does that mean he must be sixteen when he comes home again, or can he return home to the exact moment when he left? And even if he does manage to return home to the exact moment, won't he be a sixteen-year-old trapped inside a fourteen-year-old's body?

Working as an apprentice in a Dutch artist's studio in Amsterdam in 1621, Robert finally finds a way to transport himself home. He paints himself back into it:

That evening Robert fell to brooding once again, and once again, between waking and dreaming, inspiration came to him. It wasn't a breadknife or anything like that missing from his painting, it was himself. He had painted the wrong Robert, the Robert who spent the nights tossing on his bed here in Amsterdam. Two years had passed since he first set off on his involuntary travels. He had shot up in height; he looked much older now. That was the crucial mistake. He must paint himself younger, two years younger, if he was to get home again exactly as he had been when he disappeared.

Bravo! He returns home to the very moment when he left, two years ago. But, strangely, one thing is missing from the kitchen. One thing which he forgot to paint back into his picture when he transported himself back home. His mother's red glove, which she left on the counter when she went out earlier, has disappeared for ever:

He knows very well that the red glove will never turn up again; the black hole in time has swallowed it and won't give it back.

I must say, I don't really understand that. The red glove must be somewhere. Which kitchen is reality now? The one which Robert painted himself back into, or the one which he left behind? Aren't they the same?

As I said, it's a strange, uncomfortable book. I never felt that Robert was a real person. His reaction to his extraordinary adventures seems intolerably passive. And the adventures which he has, although they are bizarre, follow an essentially boring formula. Three adventures would have been quite enough for me.

See what you think.

What can I read next?

If you are an older reader and you enjoy time travel stories you might like to look at this one by Alan Garner:

If you just enjoy strange stories, you could look at this new one by Susan Price:

Or perhaps you might appreciate David Almond:

Finally, you could look at this one by Carlo Gebler:

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