Book review: My Life is Like a Fairy Tale by Robert Irwin
My Life is Like a Fairy-Tale - Robert Irwin
What we think of as reality is overrated, and stories, dreams, fantasy and fairy-tales are very much a necessity and a part of our lives. That's a theme that you will find in all of Robert Irwin's fiction, and it's a big enough theme to encompass an astonishing variety of situations, from the inescapable story-within-a story traps of The Arabian Nightmare, the hippy drug-tripping other realities sequences of Satan Wants Me, to the Surrealists of Exquisite Corpse and most recently in life/death blurring of reality and legend during the War of the Roses in Wonders Will Never Cease. In his latest masterpiece of fictional storytelling, Irwin considers the uneasy blend of reality with the fantastical in the form of classic German silent cinema of the 1920s, the early talkies and distortion of reality in the propaganda films of the Nazis.
The variety of Irwin's range is very much in keeping with his consistent worldview (one undoubtedly informed by his expertise and academic studies of The Arabian Nights) on the power of storytelling; how it colours life not only to entertain and make it more interesting, but how it can be used as a means to touch on deeper parts of the human psyche. Movies as a way to tell and mould reality is something that fits into that worldview, particularly the golden age of the UFA film industry in Germany from the 1920s to the 1940s. After the Great War and the Spanish Flu pandemic, the world is very much in need of diversion, magic and transformation of reality into something more palatable. Germany is fertile ground for a new story to be created, but those driving the narrative have their own uses for it.
What makes My Life Is Like a Fairy Tale hugely entertaining is the idea that this important message of conveying what is essential to our lives in early German cinema is Sonja Heda, a Dutch-born bit-part actress with little discernible talent, nor it seems even the writing ability required to gather her thoughts together into a narrative form for her proposed autobiography "My Life is Like a Fairy Tale". Irwin delightfully complicates the narrative perspective by not presenting Sonja's autobiography straight, but rather as her musing on how to present it, what flattering encounters to include and what sordid details to leave out. It doesn't help either that Sonja's sense of judgement is unreliable and lacking in insight, trusting in horoscopes, unaware of what is going on politically in Germany in the late 1930s, consorting with prominent Nazis including Josef Goebbels and Eva Braun.
Another character of Irwin's writing is indeed this take on the other side of illusion which is delusion, when the hallucinogenic wonder takes a turn for the horror of madness. "Our life is no film, but it can and should become one", proposes Sonja, and there are others, such as a Wieland, a young Orson Welles-like prankster, who are willing to take this idea further, from street theatre to total theatre, creating the Theatre of New Subjectivity to transform life and transform the world. Meanwhile another Austrian madman has caught the imagination of the German population in a shared vision that is leading society sleepwalking down a dangerous path, oblivious to the horror to come, much like the sleeper in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Irwin has tremendous fun with some erudite musings on the genius and coded symbolism of early classics of German cinema, and with Sonja we have an entertaining guide behind the scenes of its film industry. Irwin of course has his own fun with blending fiction and reality, going as far as inventing his own Nazi screwball comedy 'Baghdad Capers' for Sonja to star in. It's not all fun and post-screening parties however, and it's no surprise to find out that behind the glamorous surface Sonja is aware of a much more sordid reality. It doesn't come any darker when the whole Nazi dream comes crashing down along with the film industry in the grim final days of the fall of Berlin in 1945.
As usual with this author however, My Life is Like a Fairy Tale works on a number of levels even beyond fantasy and reality. It's also turns out to be a remarkably premonitory and timely account of where we stand in these present troubled times, when we have populist leaders and a dangerous pandemic, when a dangerous fool can use assume power through lies and distortion of the truth with a willing audience ready to believe in a fantasy that denies the reality. The medium might have changed and the tools of propaganda might now be Twitter instead of newspapers and movies, but like the photos shown to Sonja of the horror of the concentration camps, there are other hidden stories being captured now in phone-camera footage, creating new narratives that can reveal uncomfortable truths about our society and the reality we live in.