American writer, Austin Ratner, follows Peter Carey down the path of revisiting the lives of deceased people of interest. His debut novel, already published in the US, has garnered comparison to The True History of the Kelly Gang. Except, in this case, Ned Kelly has been pushed aside to make way for a new and unlikely protagonist, Jewish photographer, Philipp Halsmann.
By 1959, Philipp Halsmann has earned a reputation as a reliable and talented photographer and enjoyed a successful career working from his studio on the Upper West Side of New York City. His images of everyone from Salvador Dalí to Einstein, not to mention Marylin Monroe, brought him fame and recognition. However, this period makes up just a few final pages in Ratner’s novel. The main story is an earlier life marred by tragedy and misery compounded by Anti-Semite sentiment and the unrest of a Europe on the brink of World War Two.
The novel opens in September 1928, with Austrian prince Eduard Severin Maria von Auersperg enjoying a horse-mounted hunt with his bloodthirsty dogs. The prince’s air of entitlement and apparent disregard for the welfare of humans and animals alike is a chilling indication of the drama that is about to unfold. Elsewhere Max Halsmann and his son, Philipp, are trekking along the Zamserschinder, a mountain trail in the Austrian Alps. The air is crisp, the trail is tough, and tension between father and son lingers after a minor disagreement. When nature calls, Max excuses himself and, upon hearing a sharp cry, Philipp turns to see his father fall backward from a height. His bloodied corpse is later discovered, apparently beaten to death.
Fast forward and Philipp has been incarcerated at Innsbruck prison, convicted of murdering his own father. As the (mostly Aryan) inmates and wardens torment Philipp with taunts of ‘Vatermörder’ (father murderer), Philipp clings to the chance of appealing his sentence under the guidance of Pessler, a Jewish lawyer from Vienna. Ratner’s narrative is steeped in fear and gloom as Pessler warns Philip of the unlikely chance of success. Reading of Philipp’s plight now, given our understanding of the genocide that followed throughout Europe, is both disturbing and heartbreaking. Ratner heightens the ominous sense of Philipp’s powerlessness with unnerving quotations from newspapers such as Die Wahrheit, Deutsche Arbeiter Presse published contemporaneously to the Halsmann trial; “The son of Israel, the murderer of his father, Halsmann was this time the cause for Jewish mockery of the Aryan Volk, Aryan, take note!”
Ratner’s experience as co-author of the textbook Concepts in Medical Physiology can be seen in his detailed account of Max’s death. The deplorable forensic pathologist, Dr Meixner, shows no mercy as he leads the deceased’s son through the injuries before coldly dismissing the traumatised young man. Although not before pointedly remarking that “this case has consumed enough of the faculty’s time already […] at great cost to its reputation. I believe I’ve been overly gracious, as have many others, in acceding to the demands of Jews and Viennese mercenaries […] the demands of this sacrosanct… Halsmann family.” And with that Philipp knew his cards were marked for the trail. The appeal was overturned.
Eventually political intervention coupled with the pressure of public support from leading Jewish minds, including Einstein, led to Philipp’s release in 1931. He relocated to Paris —where unfortunately Ratner’s novel loses its pace— and later, to America. However the damage was done; Philipp is now a disillusioned and strange man and remains a grieving son.
The Jump Artist is a dense debut. Philipp’s transition from a relatively carefree young man to the victim of a mistrial of justice, to an international photographer, is hectic. Ratner has constructed a fractured character, unfortunately, reflected in the borderline overly-fragmented narrative.
This review was originally published in Sunday Inpendent, July 22, 2012.