Wolfgang Herrndorf

Pushkin, £14.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

Sadly, bestselling German author Wolfgang Herrndorf killed himself in 2013 after being diagnosed with an incurable brain tumour, leaving behind him only this and his debut, Why We Took the Car. We’ll never know quite where his sharp intelligence would have taken him, but Sand shows an author capable of taking well-established structures and bending them to his own designs.

Sand, then, is a sort of literary pastiche of a geopolitical thriller, set in an unnamed African country shortly after the 1972 Olympics massacre. It’s the height of the Cold War, when the continent was the stage for all kinds of intrigue, espionage and intelligence games. It begins with two policemen, Polidorio and Canisades, presented with a suspect who is believed to have killed four people at a hippy commune. It’s Herrndorf’s first piece of misdirection. A little later on, he presents us with a second beginning, when a man, who will shortly adopt the name Carl, recovers consciousness with a head wound in a barn in the desert. He has no memory of who he is or how he came to be there, but snatches of overheard conversation convince him that he’s enmeshed in some criminal activity and in imminent danger.

After staggering, bloody and bruised, across the desert, he’s picked up by Helen Gliese, an American woman who takes pity on him. Taking Carl back to her hotel, she tries to help him piece together who he is and what’s going on from the scraps of information he’s been able to glean. It’s not long before Carl is snatched off the street by a local crime lord with whom he’s apparently had dealings before. “Seventy-two hours,” the gangster grants him. “Then the mine is mine again.” Not wanting to let on that he’s got amnesia, Carl has to somehow work out what the “mine” is before he can even formulate a plan of action.

There comes a point, and it will vary from reader to reader, when it dawns that Herrndorf doesn’t intend us to take any of this at face value. It might be the revelation that the kind of amnesia Carl suffers from – basically a full-on Jason Bourne – is so vanishingly rare it’s virtually non-existent. The very odd American psychiatrist who informs him of this, who Carl doubts is actually a psychiatrist at all; the gunman who wants to pull over during a car chase so that he can get out and pray; the entire character of Helen Gliese. What started off as a convincing thriller is now looking like the most bone-dry of comedies. And Herrndorf’s enjoyment as he plays with our expectations is almost palpable.

Nevertheless, for all the fun he may be having deconstructing the thriller genre, Herrndorf endows Sand with enough literary gravitas to let you know he has serious points to make too. It’s the kind of book you’re tempted to re-read once you know how it ends, but there’s a bleakness underlying these nearly 450 pages that is likely to put off all but the most determined.